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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Townshend toy manufacturer to close store

Retail business dried up at Mary Meyer; family says wholesale and web sales still strong

TOWNSHEND—The landmark Mary Meyer Big Black Bear retail and gift shop, which opened about 30 years ago on Route 30, will close Dec. 31.

So says Walter Meyer of Townshend, the son of Hans Meyer, who came to the United States from Germany and started the stuffed toy company in New York City in 1944.

Mary Meyer, Hans’s wife and Walter’s mother, was a native New Yorker.

And Walter Meyer, one of Hans and Mary’s four sons who continue the operation today, said that retail business on Route 30 has simply dried up.

“In 1990, we did 150 tour buses a year and sold probably $1,000 worth of stuffed toys per bus,” said Meyer, who came up with the idea for the gift shop and who now handles online sales for the company. “In 2011, we did one.”

Not enough business is the sole reason the shop is closing.

“We decided to close the shop about six months ago,” Meyer said. “I’d say the gift shop is less than half a percent of the wholesale company.”

None of the business’ other operations in Townshend, including its warehouse and its order processing and shipping center for its online store, will change.

“We just finished an order for 1.5 million pieces for a jewelry chain in the U.S.,” Meyer said. “It’s a special design for a teddy bear promotion.”

He declined to name the chain, but said the customer had ordered items before, but in smaller quantities.

According to Meyer, the toy company manufactures “many million pieces of stuffed toys per year” and sells them in 8,000 retail outlets in the United States, Canada, Australia, and England, “and now, we’re beginning to do business in South America.”

The toys are manufactured in China.

“We do a little manufacturing here,” he explained, “stuffing some toys for a special promotion for a national company.”

Bears are only part of the varied inventory, Meyer said.

“We make dogs and cats and kangaroos — a huge variety,” he said.

“A fact of life is in order to succeed, you need a large base of customers,” noted Meyer, who pointed out that Townshend and the West River Valley have too few people to support a toy store.

“They have been dying throughout the U.S. because of mass marketing,” Meyer said, declining again to give an example.

A visit to his sister in Germany not long ago, where he said toy stores are also declining, affirmed his view that small, independent stores cannot survive competition from big-box stores.

A Mary Meyer shop in the Outlet Center in Brattleboro closed 10 years ago, Meyer said.

Mary Meyer products are sold in card and gift shops, department stores, hospital gift shops, at florists, in candy stores, and other places, Meyer said, noting that the online business was vigorous.

“Mary Meyer is very style-oriented and we make only high-quality stuff,” he said. “We’re the Cadillac of stuffed toys.”

He acknowledged that the famous Steiff teddy bears fall into a different price category. He said an expensive Steiff stuffed bear might sell for around $200, whereas the most expensive Mary Meyer bear costs $125, and the least expensive item they manufacture costs about $2.

‘Really blessed’

Meyer said his parents moved from New York City to Wardsboro in 1944, when his father decided he wanted to farm.

When that didn’t go well after a year, Meyer noted, “My mother said they needed to go back to the toy business. Actually, she and her neighbors were making toys on her back porch.”

So “my dad built a small factory in 1947,” he said.

That building now sits behind the home of Walter and Elaine Meyer on Route 35.

Still family-run

Walter Meyer said that he is “really blessed” that Mary Meyer still is a family-run business.

“I have four sons in the business,” he said. “Kevin is the president of the company; Steven is the designer; Michael does the warehouse; and Peter does the computer. And no one wants the other guy’s job.”

Meyer said he also has another son and a daughter who live and work in the Burlington area.

And he said with enthusiasm as the conversation was ending, “I have 18 grandchildren.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #128 (Wednesday, November 23, 2011).

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