Three months after the flood, downtown is sparkling clean, open for business, and eager to greet holiday shoppers, said Larry Rogers, who owns Bear N Friends Toy Shoppe with his wife, Anna.
Bear N Friends, hard-hit by flooding in July, has since cleaned up the muddy mess left by nearly two feet of water, has re-stocked with new inventory and has Christmas toys out of the box and ready for customers to play with.
“I always put toys in my customers’ hands,” said Larry, as he played with a toy called Moon Thunder, an LED-lit remote control stunt car. “This is sweet,” he said, as he crashed the glowing car into a wall and drove a donut on its rear wheels.
About 90 percent of the toys at Bear N Friends aren’t found in mass-market stories, Larry said. Through personal relationships with toy companies and a never-ending search for innovative products, the store is able to get new toys several years before the big boxes do.
Larry also loves Green Toys, whose hard plastic rockets, tea sets, stackers and dump trucks are USA-made from recycled plastic.
“They’re made out of recycled milk jugs in San Francisco, so you’re getting an American-made toy,” he said. “There’s just a cool factor to it, and I really like them because you’re supporting American jobs.”
Bear N Friends carries a lot of toys that are just fun and others specifically designed for learning. Wow toys, which are friction-powered and never need batteries, have been a popular seller; so have baby dolls made for the bath tub and a variety of craft sets, including the Loop de Doo bracelet-making loom.
The store has a big variety of games and a selection of outdoor toys – including a really cool giant Frisbee-like toy and the Plasma Car, which has no pedals and can be moved simply by turning the steering wheel.
There are fabric fairy wings, purses and puppets, giant wooden piggy banks, lots of dinosaurs, playsets from Bruder and Automoblox, books from Usborne and two other independent publishers. Bear N Friends offers free gift-wrapping on everything.
Today is the store’s five-year anniversary in Kingsport, and Bear N Friends is ready for its second Christmas downtown.
“Since we moved downtown, it’s just been awesome. We just have fun,” said Anna, as 2-year-old daughter Vivian and a visiting friend played with geometric stacking blocks on a kid-height table set up among the toy displays.
Larry said the store has so far survived the forces of nature in its five years, including a downburst storm at the old location and flooding on Market Street.
“It took us a full week of scrubbing, mopping, moving counters, moving bookshelves, throwing away product, getting the place clean,” he said of the aftermath of the flood. “The streets were sanitized by the city; it’s cleaner down here than it has ever been. It was a mess, but here we are three and a half months later, and it’s back to normal.”
As it turned out, said Anna, the flood was a blessing in disguise because the community has been so supportive – from raising money during the cleanup phase to coming out in droves to shop at downtown stores.
“It really helped a lot of people, including us, get back on our feet,” she said of local fundraising for flood relief. “I had two kids offer me their piggy bank money. That’s when I cried.”
With the cleanup now behind them, Anna said this holiday season they just want to have fun.
“We’re just going to enjoy our customers and enjoy the new toys that we’ve got and enjoy some games and contests we’re going to have.”
Bear N Friends is planning several events this holiday season, including some surrounding their mischievous “Elf on the Shelf” elves, Piper and Hermie. The elves, Anna said, have become a tradition at the store and with many families in the area.
“They watch us during the day and, then at night, they go and tell Santa Claus if we’ve been good or bad,” she said, “and in the morning they’re always in a different spot.”
Bear N Friends Toy Shoppe is located at 107 East Market Street in Downtown Kingsport. The store is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays. For more information, contact them at 423-245-5046.