I still remember the first time that I met Dave and Gaetana Schueckler, owners of the TreeHouse toy store. The couple walked into my store (Thunder Bay) on Elmwood Avenue and introduced themselves. They said that they wanted to open a business on the street, and had a couple of ideas in mind, one being a cyber café. The other idea was a toy store. At the time, there was no toy store on the street, as Clayton’s had moved away from the Elmwood Village years earlier. I remember how excited I was that they were considering opening a place dedicated to children and their families. I also loved that they were planning on carrying thoughtful toys, not the cheap mass produced stuff that fill the shelves of giant commercial toy stores.
Once they made their final decision to open TreeHouse, it was off to the races. For 25 years, Dave and Gaetana became the Willy Wonkas of Elmwood. Parents turned to them whenever they needed a toy… and wrapped on the spot, because they were usually heading to a birthday party, or planning for Christmas. Even though my wife and I never had kids, we always depended on TreeHouse for gifts for, say, a godchild.
It’s hard to imagine Elmwood without a toy store. It was tough enough when Clayton’s left a huge hole, which was thankfully filled by TreeHouse. The Elmwood Village rallied around TreeHouse for well over two decades. I don’t think that anyone could have guessed that there would be a time when it would come to an end.
Following is an interview with Gaetana:
25 years is a great run. What is an immediate thought?
There are a lot of emotions. It’s hard for us. Mostly every year rolls into the next year – certain years stick out, but for the most part, for me, it’s the buying side and physical side… it takes a toll. Each year, after Christmas, we would have two weeks to analyze the sales, and then begin ordering for the following Christmas. We’ve been doing that gig for 25 years.
I don’t think many people understand that owning a toy store is not all fun and games.
Any employee that grew up with our store – when they get behind the scenes of the fun they quickly recognize how much goes on to make it happen. It’s always fascinating to hear, after a couple of weeks, during the holidays, and they are at a loss for words when they experience the organized chaos. It’s like the kitchen at your favorite restaurant – there’s so much of what people don’t see.
I’m sure that people have been asking you, “Why don’t you just sell it?”
We went through the decision in our minds, before making it public. You plan a closing similar to planning an opening. There’s vendor communication and inventory management. It’s very emotional. The store is like a kid to us – we grew it and nurtured it, and it changes, and it makes you want to laugh and cry. It’s a very personal thing. The store is a piece of us. It has our personality and passion. It’s what makes it so different. The business is a reflection of yourself.
I’m sure that the industry has changed over the years, in ways that you never could have imagined.
It’s a constant drive to keep up with the big box stores. Back when we opened, there were no smart phones, no Amazon to compete with (except for books). These days running a small business means that you’re not just selling toys out of the shop, you’re competing online… it’s how I spend my time, it’s mind boggling, especially in the last 3 to 5 years. I have met so many wonderful friends in the toy industry, and they get it. It gets harder and harder. The business owns you, not the other way around.
And the pandemic?
The pandemic accelerated everything. Think of the societal changes when it comes to shopping. Small businesses don’t have the resources, the energy, or the financial resources to get ahead. We’ve had a fully functioning website (with sales) for 12 years. Last year (during the pandemic) was the first year that we didn’t lose money – there are so many fees, and thousands of items that must be uploaded, with photos and descriptions. But we had to depend on online sales, because of the quarantine. You’ve got to promote your products on social media to let people know what you have. And then there’s the delivery, with packaging getting more expensive, and paying for ever-increasing costs of delivery service. Just think of Grubhub that takes up to 25% of the sales. How can you compete with Amazon that has distribution warehouses right here in WNY, and offers low cost, same day delivery (and wrapped)?
Yes, Amazon. It’s got to be tough to compete.
In the past, we’ve had to deal with third party sellers dumping their stock on sites like Amazon. Amazon always wanted to be the cheapest outlet. And then they focused on shipping for free. Then it was about getting products out as fast as possible to the customer. And now it’s all about being warm and fuzzy, featuring the faces of the employees. Their 50,000 sf warehouse might have 100 employees, and people get excited about that, but think about all of the small businesses closing, and those employees that are out of work. Amazon’s next message is how they are environmentally friendly. There are so many shifting messages to capture even more of the market.
You’ve seen the changes in customers’ buying habits.
If you talked to me 11 months ago, my biggest fear was not shutting down because of the pandemic, it was about people’s habits changing. Look at it this way – if a construction project disrupts your front street and sidewalk for months and months at a time, people will find other routes and places to shop. It just happens. The pandemic was going to force people to change their habits – people were quarantined. We worked harder than ever – we had store pick-up, and delivery, and everything else that we thought that we needed to compete. Now it’s all about businesses using Facebook Live to drive sales. I’ve talked to friends that are doing it, not because they want to, but because they have to.
Do you think that this is a systemic problem?
I worry for small businesses. It’s like one person throwing a pebble into a pond (a click of a mouse). Not much happens to disrupt the pond, on top or down below. But if everyone is throwing rocks into the pond, the pond is disrupted. It’s too easy for people to click a button, instead of walking or driving to a store to shop. It’s hard to change the momentum. The pandemic speeded it all up, but it was coming. Last year, Target did more business than it had collectively during the previous 11 years. The ‘big three’ can stay open, and everyone else will shut down. The small businesses are now being stamped non-essential.
No, it told us that we had to start living more. We saw people spending more time with their families, and we found ourselves working harder. We haven’t spent holidays with our family in 25 years. The pandemic forced us to reevaluate our lives, and how we want to spend our time. We realized that it was time. We’re ready to be Dave and Gay again. I just want to have a cup of coffee with my husband, to talk about life, not business.
And your plans moving forward?
We plan on staying in WNY. We want to concentrate on being partners in life, not partners in business.
And the memories?
The memories and the stories. And the friends that we have made. And our employees, who are like family – they even have kids of their own now.
What do you think about when you look at the store?
[Crying] I think about all of the shelves and the cupboards that Dave built. I had a vision for how I wanted the puppets to look, and he poured himself into the store. We breathed life into the store. It was full of life.
As for an exact closing date, the doors will close when the stock is gone.