Celebrating Our Playcentre Shop
Christchurch’s Playcentre shop is tucked away in a quiet-ish corner of Sydenham. I popped in on a miserably cold Autumn afternoon thinking that I would peruse the shelves, chat to the staff, and leave ready to write a sweet little story about the experience. I’ve always been a fan, there’s no denying that. I could write a long list of reasons to go there without thinking twice. However this time I came away from my not-so-brief visit with a much deeper appreciation for the shop and its valuable role in the Canterbury Playcentre community.
Nestled in a compact yellow prefab, the shop is neatly laid out according to areas of play. There are no gender segregated pink and blue sections, partitions that embarrassingly seem to dominate larger toys stores. There are puzzles, hand puppets, craft supplies, dolls, genuinely something for everyone. One of the shop assistants, Jessamy, says that they cater roughly for ages zero to ten, but there are things that appeal to all ages. She herself admits to being a fan of pipe cleaners, explaining that her daughter thinks her obsession is somewhat unhealthy. I have a wooden peg collection and every time I enter the Playcentre store I can’t help but think of adding to it.
The shop currently has two staff members, Jessamy and Megan. Jessamy admits that neither of them come from a retail background. They’ve both been working at the shop for 10 years or more now however, so we can assume that they’ve become fully fledged experts. Both are enthusiastic and dedicated former Playcentre parents, which is what makes them perfect for the job.
Remarkably, the origins of the Playcentre shop date back to the 1940s, a few years after Playcentres began popping up around the country. They weren’t initially open to the public, as they are now, but instead provided valuable play supplies to the Playcentre and early childhood community. Today the shop sells significantly more than it once did, everything from crayons to carpentry equipment, kitsets to cards and gift wrapping. (For more history see ‘Playcentre in the making - An Innovative Movement’ in Alisa Densem and Barbara Chapman’s Learning Together: The Playcentre Way).
The store stocks both locally made specialty items and recognisable brands familiar to every good toy store, such as Hape and Playmobil. Jessamy informs me that they make a special effort to stock locally made toys. They’re often made to order, such as impressive carpentry play tables. In store there are both expensive items, like these, as well as tiny treasures with a child’s pocket money price tag.
The items in the shop aren’t merely toys however, they’re tools for play. “If you want something that comes in a box with a set of instructions on how to play with it, then you’re in the wrong place”, Jessamy says. This is true to the Playcentre philosophy: toys should have more than one use, and be able to be used in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts. Of course, there are still things in the shop that come in brightly coloured boxes. But there are also items like small wood-turned honey dippers, objects which have a variety of uses such as painting, printmaking, or as clay or play dough tools.
The store itself is densely packed with temptations for tiny shoppers. The last time I was here my son had an absolute ball pushing the toddler sized shopping trolley around the aisles, placing numerous treasures inside. Jessamy describes the shops as “the perfect place to teach children how to shop. If an item in the shop can’t withstand being handled by a two year old then there’s something wrong with it”.
The shop is owned by The Canterbury Playcentre Association, a charity organisation. All the profits end up supporting Canterbury’s Playcentres. During my visit Jessamy describes it as “our shop” more than once. I’ve been part of many conversations bemoaning the junk for sale, the gender obsession, and impersonal nature of large toy retailers. Jessamy points out that in such stores, which generally aren’t even New Zealand owned, the decisions about stock, layout and marketing are made in offices elsewhere. Instead, the Playcentre Shop responds solely to Playcentre and customer needs. Feedback is immediate because the decision makers are the people chatting to customers everyday. To visit the store is to have an old-fashioned, friendly shopping experience.
When Jessamy began working in the store ten years ago there were nine Playcentre shops operating around New Zealand. Now, sadly, there are only two. The closing of other stores has, however, steered more people towards the online store. The online store sells almost everything that’s available in the physical store and is especially useful for out of towners. The only downside is that it’s not as easy to serendipitously stumble across that perfect gift, or to let your toddler show you first hand what they’re interested in playing with.
The AA across the road generates a surprising amount of foot traffic for the store, Jessamy says. For some the store is their first encounter with anything Playcentre related. Megan and Jessamy take the time to inform such customers about Playcentre and BabiesCanPlay, Playcentre sessions specifically for under 2s. While most customers are current or former Playcentre families, there are also members of the public who return time and time again. Abundant, warm, and delightfully unpretentious, the store is a lovely initiation into the Playcentre world.
If you haven’t been into the store before, make the effort: it’s at 17 Buchan Street. Take a wander around the block when you’re shopping at The Colombo or driving down Brougham Street. Visit on behalf of your centre, buy something to inspire or challenge a young person, or indulge your own passion for art and craft supplies.
- Frances Martin
Posted: Tuesday 23 May 2017