iPhones? iPads? Toys and games are still king with children (and some adults)
Teri Hustins has been selling toys, puzzles, and books in Victoria for over three decades
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Teri Hustins has been selling toys, puzzles, and books in Victoria for over three decades
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It’s eerily quiet inside “the Brain.” Boxes of Cribbage line the walls, toy catalogues are filed in folders, and two desks overlooking Oscar and Libby’s gift shop are littered with orange and green sticky notes.
After six seconds of silence, Teri Hustins, owner of the shop and the toy store Kaboodles Victoria, repeats the question aloud.
“My favourite toooooy?”
The casual customer of Oscar and Libby’s, or its sister store Kaboodles, might never know of the existence of the Brain—an attic/office/warehouse space located within Oscar and Libby’s Fort Street location. However, the room is the epicentre of Hustins’ business planning for both operations; hence why she named it the Brain.
Another eight seconds of silence passes.
“My favourite toy, huh.”
A stuffed animal? A doll? An action figure?
Another 21 seconds of pondering and face-contorting deep thinking ticks by when...
“I would have to say it was my Barbies,” she says.
“I had a Cher Barbie… the only reason I stopped playing with my Barbies was because someone told me ‘Barbies aren’t cool.’”
Yet, years after she dropped Barbies in favour of modern gifts like picture books or novels, Hustins longed to be involved with the toy industry somehow.
Hustins admits that she’s always been a bit quirky. She doesn’t paint or sculpt; instead she likes to curate and manage stores. Born in Newfoundland and raised in Ottawa, Hustins was about three years into a law degree at Carleton University when she moved to Victoria in 1989 to live with her mother-in-law.
Her plan was to always head back to school, but she took a manager job at Kaboodles—an independent toy store that launched in Vancouver and expanded to Victoria in 1990. The allure of a full-time paycheck was too good to leave.
“We bought a house with my mother-in-law, things kept snowballing, and I loved working at Kaboodles,” said Hustins, who officially took over ownership of the Victoria store in 2019.
“I loved the toy industry.”
In 2005, nearly a decade and a half into her stint at Kaboodles, Hustins and her husband opened up a shop to sell gifts besides toys.
Oscar and Libby’s, named after her pet cats, was born out of a desire to create an eclectic store to sell objects—from hot sauces to pairs of socks—that intrigued Hustins as a consumer.
“I wanted to put together a really quirky gift store,” she says.
Even after launching her own business, Hustins continued to manage Kaboodles. She credits the help of Lee Richmond, her business partner at Kaboodles Vancouver, and staff at both stores that allowed her to oversee both operations. In 2008, Hustins opened a second Oscar and Libby’s in Market Square.
But she admits that finding her footing as a new business owner was a struggle early on, especially in the topsy-turvy retail business.
“[My husband and I] had all this money to open up, we financed our house, and it’s just youthful entrepreneurial arrogance—you think you’re going to light the world on fire,” she said.
Around the same time Hustins opened her second Oscar and Libby’s location, Canada entered a recession.
Although she was able to weather the storm after a couple of challenging years, the recession helped her prepare for unpredictable events in the future.
“Nothing is static in retail, your hair is always on fire, you’re just always flying.”
Hustins always tries to look for the bright side in the darkest of circumstances. In November 2013, a fire at a restaurant beside Oscar and Libby’s Fort Street location caused her to clear out her inventory before the Christmas season—a time of year that accounts for 25% of her annual revenue.
While the financial implications from that lost year of sales impacted Oscar and Libby’s for the next two years, she found a new building across the street with an office space—the Brain—which helped Hustins and her team work and plan more creatively.
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The COVID-19 pandemic was the next cataclysmic event that forced her to put that creative mindset to the test.
At the time, Hustins was coming off of a “buying cycle” after Christmas, and heading into a busy spring break season—but had to close both of her businesses from March until the summer. In that time, with stock piling up in her stores, she decided to develop a modern-day tool that she had been hesitant to implement before: a website for both businesses.
“Our store is an experience,” Hustins said. “I just [didn’t] know how we’d take a hodgepodge of stuff and translate it into a digital realm.”
Even with the advent of technology and video games, toys and puzzles were popular purchases in the pandemic.
While last year was tough financially, she says, the website, strong Christmas season, and support from locals—including from folks of all ages—helped keep her businesses alive.
“We have a lot of customers at Kaboodles who are grandparents,” she said. “They tend to look at the products online, but are more comfortable phoning in their credit card number or coming to the store to buy it.”
Aside from puzzles, which were popular for both adults and youth, Hustins says that fidget, STEM, and open-ended building toys were other huge hits in the pandemic.
As she’s gotten older, Hustins has also become more environmentally aware of her purchases. Now, she prefers to buy toys that can be passed down through generations, such as dolls or building-block toys, and do business with companies that are focused on using reusable materials.
“I [now] think, is that just going to end up in a garbage can?”
Hustins may not have Barbie sleepovers as she once did as a kid, but she hasn’t lost her passion for toys.
“I’m happiest and most excited when I’m in the store early in the morning, playing with my toys.”
Capital Daily: What does Victoria need to make it easier to run a business here?’
Teri Hustins: Right now what Victoria needs is for its workers to come back to its office spaces, when they feel it’s safe to come back. We need the locals to come back downtown, we need our tourism-based industries and businesses to be functioning at capacity. That’s dependent on the borders opening up (Canada will reopen its border to fully vaccinated US citizens on Aug. 9, and all international travellers on Sep. 7).
When we have vibrant, energetic streets, we all thrive.
What worries you most about your business?
Hustins: At this moment, moving forward for the next six months, it’s supply chain issues. It’s going to have us running all season. You think you’ve ordered $2,000 worth of something, you got it all spaced out in the store, and then $400 shows up. Then it’s like, OK, [time for] Plan B.
What excites you the most about your business?
Hustins: I’m an early bird; I get up super early. I love going into Kaboodles first thing in the morning to see what the gals received that day, what new books, and seeing how they put it together. I’m happiest and most excited when I’m in the store early in the morning, playing with my toys.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
Hustins: I think that’s one of the nice things that’s come out of the pandemic. During it, because we were all struggling with the same things, there was a lot of texting and neighbours stopping by [and asking], “How are you dealing with this?”
There was a lot of strengthening of connection, [specifically with] my neighbour at Kaboodles, Roberta Grennon of Roberta’s Hats. And we wouldn’t be where we are right now without our team of bookkeepers and accountants.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
Hustins: I don’t know at this point, I’m 10 years out from retirement, that I would want to take on that learning curve in a new industry. But when I retire, I would want to go work at Munro’s or Bolen’s Books. I am a voracious reader, and I particularly love children’s books.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
Hustins: I would set up some bursaries in my business for some of my staff who are doing their post-secondary education. We have some amazing young people in our stores who are going to university, and to be able to support them in getting them into their dream worlds… I would like to do something like that.
What, if anything, did you learn from the pandemic about your business?
Hustins: I learned to trust my instincts, experience, I also learned to trust my staff’s experience and knowledge. We’re fortunate enough to have some staff here, a couple of them have been here for 10 plus years, and they’re good at what they do. So when I would get fatigued and couldn’t think clearly Leah [Davis, Oscar and Libby’s store manager] would say, ‘What about this?”
To trust their experience and knowledge, I learned to ask for help
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
Hustins: Again, it’s going to sound corny, but my crew. I’m an oldie, a luddite, I’m surrounded by young people, so having Leah’s husband, Peter—we created a new position in the business for him earlier this year—where his sole job is logistics and communication.
To be at a point in our business, and to still be in a pandemic, but to be able to think a little down the road that if we’re going to have a digital realm we need to have a digital realm that represents what the brick and mortar represents. What does that look like? So when a box from Kaboodles shows up at your door, that same excitement is in that box as when the child comes into the store.
What do you consider your biggest business failure, and how did you overcome it?
Hustins: In 2000, my husband and I had an organic veggie delivery service in a van. So it was like a mini-grocery store in a van that you could call to your house and shop from the van. It was not successful. We were ahead of the curve.
I would [also] say, definitely, my lack of work/life balance. It’s a struggle for me. I’m an ‘all in’ kind of gal, work hard and play hard. I’m still a work in progress on that front.
What do you wish you knew before taking over Kaboodles and starting Oscar and Libby’s?
Hustins: When you’re new to business you think you’re going to light the world on fire. I think of when I opened Oscar and Libby’s, my mistakes were not preserving some of my opening capital for an "emergency fund.” I wish I hadn't blown through so much of our capital in getting the store open and in its first year of business. It would have been helpful to have those reserves to fall back on later, once we had a bit more experience and knowledge and had cut our "retail chomps.”
Kaboodles was different because I had so much experience in that business so it was really about taking Kaboodles and turning it into what I wanted in a children's store. So that’s why, because I’m such a reader, you’ll see there’s a lot more books in that store.