By Sam Prickett
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Homewood Toy & Hobby, but owner Tricia McCain hasn’t had much time to celebrate. Like most small business owners, she has spent most of the year weathering the pandemic and is now heading into the holiday season, the busiest time of year for the store.
“We’re open seven days a week, which started a couple of weeks ago,” she says. “And we’re open later, til 6:30 p.m. Once Thanksgiving hits, we just don’t slow down. It’s nonstop, seven days a week, and I don’t take off a day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Neither does the store manager, Julie (Marix). We’re here every day because we do that much business.”
The holiday season is crucial to staying in business, says Walter Busenlehner, Tricia’s father, who owned the store for decades before selling it to Tricia in the early 1990s.
“You’re looking at three months you’ve got to make,” he says. “If you don’t make those three months and Christmas, you’re in trouble.”
Walter’s standing across the counter from Tricia in the back of the store, flanked by stacked boxes of remote-controlled cars, thumbing through a stack of old photos and yellowed newspaper clippings. He selects one, a grainy black-and-white shot showing several rows of upended bicycles. This is from an older incarnation of the store, he says, when it was in a building down the street and its main stock consisted of lawnmowers and bicycles.
The business was started by his parents, Clarence and Kathryne Busenlehner, in 1950. Coincidentally, the still-running Mountain Brook toy store Smith’s Variety started the same year.
Back then, Homewood Toy & Hobby was situated a block away from its current location in downtown Homewood, near where Ed’s Pet World is now. The store would move up and down 18th Street South several times: first to the nearby corner, where Nadeau, the furniture store, is now situated; then to the building that previously housed the Homewood Theater; then finally to the former location of an Elmore’s discount store, where it is now.
Clarence had owned a bakery in Edgewood, but “he never really enjoyed baking,” Walter says. “He liked lawnmower repairs and bicycles, so he sold the bakery to his brother and opened up a bike and lawnmower business.”
When the store moved to its second location, it started to expand its scope. The distributor from which the store bought its bike and lawnmower parts also sold sporting goods and hobby supplies, so the store rebranded as Homewood Cycle & Hobby Shop. After the store moved to the old theater building, the Busenlehners decided to drop lawnmowers entirely.
“They just kept everything in the store filthy,” Walter says. “So we went strictly into bicycles, with some toys and hobbies.”
Generations Have Run the Store
After his father died, Walter bought the business from his mother in 1970 and eventually decided to drop the cycling side of the business, too.
“I decided I didn’t want to deal with bicycles,” he says. “I never was a bike mechanic, and it got to the point where the bikes were getting so complicated. The market was going to lightweight bikes, and they were expensive, and I just said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ So I sold the bike shop and moved in here and stayed strictly toy.”
When she was about 14 years old, Tricia started working at the store.
“I was in school, it was easy money, and I just enjoyed it,” she says. “I went off to Auburn for a couple of years, came back and went to UAB and majored in marketing, working here while I was at UAB. Then once I graduated, I was like, ‘OK, it might be time for you to retire and just let me take over.’ And that’s basically what happened.”
It was a similar nudge to the one Walter had given his mother decades earlier.
“I wanted to grow, and she was used to staying still with no new ideas,” he says. “So I bought her out after my father died. I went up to her one day and said, ‘Mother, I want to buy you out. I don’t care what the price is. You can get with our accountant, name your price.’ And she did. She sort of balked at it a little, but it gave her a chance to do something she had never done. She had worked all her life, so she was able to go meet with her church friends and play bridge. She probably resented it at first, but I think she probably liked it.”
Years later, that meant that Walter understood where Tricia was coming from.
“She wanted to grow things her way, do things her way, which was understandable, so I backed out,” he says.
“Smart man,” Tricia added, laughing.
“She’s like her old man,” Walter says. “I had three daughters but this one, she works like I do. If there’s work to be done, she’s going to be there.”
Changing With the Times
Tricia insists she didn’t make that many changes to the store. Over time, the toy department has grown to take up more of the store than hobbies, thanks mostly to declining sales of model trains.
“It used to be pretty much half-and-half – half toys, dolls, board games and science-type stuff, and half remote control cars, planes, helicopters, trains, rocketry, and plastic models,” she says. “But trains have kind of slowed down. … People just don’t collect things anymore like they used to.”
She’s resisted the industry trend toward online sales but knows the store eventually will have to adapt.
“I’ve been putting it off for as long as I possibly can, but we’re going to have to,” she says, “We do have a website right now, but it might have 20% of our stuff on there. Our inventory just changes so fast and gets outdated as new things come in. It’s really hard to keep up. We’ll have to have a person who does nothing but (online sales). That day is coming. That will be a big change, and it’s something I am not looking forward to.”
Surviving During the Time of COVID
The pandemic caused her to worry briefly about the future of the business, particularly in the eight weeks that the store could do only curbside sales.
“We lost a lot of money,” she says. “And then the second we opened back up to let people come in, we pretty much made up our money pretty quickly. I was really, really surprised. I thought we were going to be in trouble.”
Remote-controlled cars did particularly well during the shutdown, as did sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, hula hoops and other outdoor toys.
“Puzzles we could not keep in stock, and board games,” she says. “People were really taking time to sit at home and have a family night and play board games, which is good! People need to spend more time playing board games with their family!”
“A lot of people are finding that they’d missed a lot with their children because they thought they didn’t have time,” Walter says. “This was forced on them, but now they’ll miss it when they go back.”
Walter still owns the building but says he doesn’t come into the store much anymore. He’ll drop in every once in a while, especially during the lead-up to Christmas.
“He comes in and says, ‘You need to order more of this! You need to order more of that! You didn’t clean the bathrooms this morning! Somebody needs to vacuum the floor!’” Tricia laughs. “We get a lot of that.”
But he really likes to see the longtime customers, including families that have been shopping at Homewood Toy and Hobby for generations.
“It is amazing,” he says. “There’s one man and his family that come in here with their children – and they’re grown children that have their own children now. I don’t know his name, but he always gives me a big hug, and every year he says, ‘One more year.’”
Tricia says customers still come in who remember when the store was on the corner and sold bicycles.
“There are people that just want to come in the store because this is where their toys came from when they were little,” she says. “For Thanksgiving, normally we see tons of people that are in town visiting family that just bring kids and grandkids because they want them to see our store. … I just like to see the people come back who have shopped here over the years and have good things to say.”
“People like to come into the store and see the same person,” she added, reaching for Walter’s stack of photographs. “We’ve had lots of employees that have worked here for a long time. Julie, who manages the store up front, has been here probably 20 years now. I’ve worked here forever.”
She pulled out a photo of a middle-aged man behind a counter smiling and holding a model train.
“Bill Norman, who passed away a few years ago, worked here for 37 years. It’s harder to do now, but we like to get employees that will actually stay. People want to come in and see familiar faces.”
Even with COVID-19’s continued presence, she expects she’ll see plenty of familiar faces over the holidays.
“One thing we learned during the pandemic: People might cut back, but they’re not going to skimp on their kids’ toys,” she says. “Kids are going to get toys one way or the other. Christmas is going to happen. … We’re just happy we’re still here and that people still keep coming to the store. It’s a really good business to be in, really.”