Go beyond the stuffed giraffe, lion and bear sitting proudly in the window display of toy store, past the kaleidoscope of bold red trucks, blushing fairy wings and military-styled kites, and meet Zeke Boren, the keeper of this castle.
Boren, an affable and outgoing guy, seems to possess a quirky, boyish familiarity for his 29 years. His disposition conjures up images of Tom Hanks stomping out the strands of “Heart and Soul” on a giant piano in Big.
To boot, Boren is a kids’ visionary who seems to know which toys encourage a youngster’s natural curiosity.
“The toys that we try to buy are about keeping your imagination alive, anything to keep it creative and away from computers and television,” Boren says.
The two-aisle store is crammed tight from floor to ceiling with balls, board games and puzzles. Action figures stand guard and delicate tea sets wait for little girls in dress up. Rocking horses, wagons and pogo sticks share floor space.
Boren eagerly shows a visitor his stockpiled favorites.
“Jack-in-the-boxes have kept their popularity. So have spinning tops,” Boren explains. “Any kind of train set or a toy from the LEGO company—really popular.
"And this,” he says excitedly as he lifts a Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks box, “was my absolute favorite as a kid. I used to build them into a chair and seat, and my friends would pull them out like Jenga blocks.”
The knowledgeable Boren has often bailed out shoppers searching for that last-minute birthday gift.
“When someone needs a gift for a 4-year-old boy, I say 'Stomp Rocket,'" Boren says.
“Calico Critters are insanely popular.”
“Anything that can be touched, like yo-yos, Slinkys and Japanese erasers.”
This year, Angry Birds—an online puzzle video game—has inspired a cache of trinkets.
“Puzzles, keychains and squeeze toys—anything Angry Birds—are hugely in demand,” Boren says.
Pointing to a smattering of politically incorrect toys hung on the front wall—wooden toy guns, plastic crusader swords, and candy cigarettes—Boren dismisses the idea that juvenile minds can be corrupted by the like; instead he says it keeps alive that elusive remnant of make-believe.
“These are all things I used to play with as a child,” Boren recalls fondly.
Boren’s parents, Scott and Janet, opened the toy store on Main Street 35 years ago. The family was familiar with the toy business because a friend owned a similar store in Cape May.
“My father thought it would be a fun way to make a living,” says Boren, whose family also opened a second store in Haddonfield five years later.
The name of the store, Happy Hippo, is family lore.
“My dad looked at this poster,” Boren says, referring to an image of a hippopotamus hanging behind the cash register, “and said, 'That looks like a happy hippo.’”
Compared with the larger chains like FAO Schwarz and KB Toys—both have in recent years filed for bankruptcy protection—local independent stores have managed to eke out a decent following in the highly competitive toy business.
With the help of and the support of citizens groups, more consumers are keeping their bucks in their own backyards. Plus, Boren and his team of seven employees dole out leftovers from the olden days of retail—good old-fashioned service.
According to the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, an organization serving the specialty toy industry, the group boasts more than 1,300 members—although that number includes book stores, school supply stores and manufacturer’s representatives.
“Nowadays, there are less than 500 mom-and-pop-type toy stores,” Boren says.
As a businessman, Boren is resolved to maintain a strong presence on Moorestown’s Main Street.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes since I’ve grown up in this neighborhood—especially lately,” Boren says referring to the recent at the Moorestown Mall. “I think ... the licenses will take away from Main Street [restaurants].”
Boren says if the mall is gaining liquor licenses “so should everyone else. I’m for anything that will help small businesses."
Employee Holly French—who started working at The Happy Hippo while in high school, moved west and recently returned to town and her job at the store—says generations of families have come in to shop.
“We know a lot of our customers, so parents are comfortable letting their kids wander around and try the toys,” French adds. “As long as the kids are supervised, it’s usually fine by us.”
With the holidays just around the corner, Boren set up a website this year to compete with online shopping, listing deals and specials.
As Boren gives the store mascot Rex, his 12-year-old pug, a body rub, Boren glances around the store and smiles.
“Not many people can say they grew up in a toy store."