Nearly six years ago, Kristen House took the leap of a lifetime, opening a local toy store that sought to keep Mill Valley families shopping locally.
And while opening Toyhouse Mill Valley in June 2010 was House’s maiden voyage into the retail world – “It was all new territory for me, so there was a giant learning curve,” she says – she had just the right shop to emulate: Hopscotch Kids, the much-loved store that had a decade-long run in the 352 Miller Avenue space where Once Around is now.
House knew Hopscotch Kids owner Claudia Sutton, both because she was a regular Hopscotch shopper and because their daughters were the same age and attended Park School. Sutton closed her store in 2006, right around the time that House’s husband Mike was laying the early groundwork for Tamalpais Commons, the prominent mixed-used development at 505 Miller Ave. that his House Properties opened in 2010. House Properties, which has its offices downtown, has acquired, managed and/or developed an array of residential and commercial properties in California and Hawaii, including the Miller Avenue building containing Grilly’s and Malugani Tues, which it bought in 2005.
Kristen House had long been leading finance and investor relations for House Properties, and the debut of Tamalpais Commons created an opportunity to launch her own business. She leaned on Sutton, who now owns Weathered Nest at 31 Sunnyside Ave., in two ways. First, Sutton helped House navigate the toy business: “Sourcing products, connecting with sales reps and vendors, going to toy industry shows,” House says.
Secondly, she connected House with her former ace Hopscotch Kids employees, Rosane Nunes and Lucy Hoeber, both of whom were with ToyHouse since its inception. Longtime manager Nunes recently moved to Florida, and Hoeber is now the manager.
“They worked for me for 10 years and they really know the business,” Sutton says.
But while House gained industry knowledge from Sutton, Nunes and Hoeber, she also relied on her instincts as a mom of four kids, having opened the store with 1-, 3 and 5-year-old girls at home and a son on the way. Given the 1,500-square-foot space she was occupying in Tamalpais Commons, House knew that she couldn’t be all things to all people and that she wouldn’t be competing with the likes of Toys R Us.
“We primarily focused on old-fashioned imaginative play with high quality toys – no Barbie, nothing too Spongebobbish,” House says with a laugh. “We primarily have non-mass market toys except hands-on brands like Lego and Playmobile, no video games.”
Because House has three daughters, over the years she’s added tween-focused products like hair accessories and jewelry. “Now we run the gamut, from baby rattles and blankets all the way up to jewelry for teenagers,” she says.
Born and raised in West Hartford, Conn., House went to Colby College in Maine and later moved to Boston. Her older sister was living in the Bay Area at the time, and like many college grads, she decided to give San Francisco a try. Other than a stint to get her MBA at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, House has lived in the Bay Area ever since.
In 1995 at the Advantage Fitness gym in San Francisco’s Marina district, she met Mike House, and the couple got married and moved to Mill Valley in 1998.
House has made ToyHouse a must-stop visit for parent volunteers raising money for school-related projects, whether it’s gift card donations for school auctions or holiday shopping nights with portion of proceeds going to local schools. “That has been a major part of who we are since the beginning,” she says. “It’s really important for us to be active in the community.”
Ten years after she closed Hopscotch Kids, Sutton says ToyHouse has filled the void.
“She’s done a really nice job,” she says.
The 411: ToyHouse Mill Valley is at 515 Miller Avenue. Hours are Monday–Friday, 10am–6pm, Saturday 10am–5pm and Sunday 10am–3pm. More info. Here are some photos of Toyhouse: