best of new york 2021

The Best Toy Stores in New York

Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; Photos Getty Images

Since 1985, our annual “Best of New York” issue has named standout services, unique shops, and special spots in dozens of categories. Now that Curbed is part of New York’s family, we have reimagined “Best of New York” as an ever-expanding resource that could rival Yelp in usefulness but feels more like a secret Google doc that gets passed among friends. To find the places recommended on these lists, we polled hundreds of stylish and savvy New Yorkers and begged them to tell us their go-tos. The result: our own Yellow Pages, containing only excellent places.

For Running Into a Momfluencer

CAMP, 110 Fifth Ave.; 20 Hudson Yards, second fl.; and 1 Dekalb Ave., Downtown Brooklyn; camp.com

Since it opened its first location in the Flatiron District in 2018, Camp has become best known for its experiential offerings. You’ll find of-the-moment toys (even stuff for adults) throughout the retail space, which is called “the Canteen,” but go behind the magic door and you’ll discover an entire play area (in the Flatiron location, its theme is “Base Camp”): Kids can climb up a bunk bed that leads to a slide that leads to a disco room with a light-up floor, play in the radio lab, or check out the lake and canoe. There are also arts-and-crafts tables where kids can make slime, do ceramics, or paint. Of course, this is a momfluencer’s dream: “It’s an actual destination,” says Heather Tomoyasu, founder of the blogs Bay Ridge Families and US Japan Fam. It was there that her contemporary Jo Smith, a single mother of two and the blogger behind The Young Smiths, discovered a karaoke Bluetooth mic that is somehow equally entertaining for both her 3-year-old and her 8-year-old. And it has continued to come through in the pandemic, Smith says: “Back in October the kids and I attended a fun, safe, socially distanced trick-or-treating event. They also have been putting on fun, free virtual events, such as story times, virtual birthday parties, and ‘vacations’ — we recently embarked on an adventure to Florida during their Travel Tuesdays event. The kids got to learn about manatees, and they loved it.”

For Some Actually Cool New York–iana

PiccoliNY, piccolinyshop.com

Most new yorkers may prefer to ignore the Statue of Liberty tchotchkes and Milton Glaser–inspired artwork being peddled all over the city, but sometimes, especially when it’s in kid form, New York–iana can actually be done right. A hand-knit hot-dog rattle ($20), a wooden pull-back taxicab ($22) — these are the (not cheap but certainly highly giftable) items that have long drawn devoted customers to PiccoliNY, a cozy boutique that opened a decade ago on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. “We’ve been going since 2013, the year our first child was born,” says Mike Chau, who is better known by the Instagram handle @foodbabyny and now has three kids. A New York Mets teether is one of his most beloved purchases from the place, and a neon-pink beanie — bearing the store’s “Hot Dog Pretzel NY” logo — “is a favorite accessory of both my wife and daughter,” he says. (Eva Chen has Instagrammed her daughter in gear from the store too.) Owner Alexandra Zagami Ng, who works closely with an artist to create these popular in-house designs, has had to take the business online-only since the pandemic and hopes to reopen eventually in its new space in the Navy Yard. In the meantime, the website has a lovely, not dizzyingly large selection of toys, like multi-language alphabet puzzles and “craft and sensory kits for older kids.” Plus, for newborns’ gifts, the keepsake knitted rattles are made with ecofriendly dyes and happen to come in the shape of apples and MetroCards.

For Puppets, Puzzles, and Grandma Dawn

Grandma’s Place, 84 W. 120th St.; grandmasplaceinharlem.com

Illustration: Jorge Colombo

So fierce has been the support for Grandma’s Place that the 20-year-old Harlem store, which came under threat of closing in the pandemic, has become famous lately — appearing on the news, on New York Nico’s Instagram, and even on The Kelly Clarkson Show. “They’ve been a fixture on this block,” says father of two Mike Robles, who lives around the corner. The owner is 81-year-old neighborhood resident Dawn Harris-Martine, a.k.a. Grandma Dawn, who has been, Robles says, “so warm and open about creating an environment and fostering a place where kids can come in and have a good time. It really is like Grandma’s place, where you can just come in and say hi. And if you need a math book, for example, you know where to go.” Publicist and brand strategist Nakia Hicks, who has a 7-year-old son, says, “I can safely say that I have never purchased a toy for him from any toy store other than Grandma’s Place. It is essential that Black boys like my son see themselves represented in toys and books. I recently bought him a Black scientist puppet to introduce scientist to him as a viable career.” (The store covers all kinds of interests with STEM toys, puzzles, art supplies, and beyond.)

For Upper East Side Birthday-Party Gifts

Mary Arnold Toys, 1178 Lexington Ave.; maryarnoldtoys.com

Upper East Side parents consider this an essential stop en route to birthday parties, according to Christine Lee, parent to a 6-year-old girl. In addition to your Jellycat plushies, Melissa & Doug puzzles, and Plus-Plus construction sets, the generously spaced mom-and-pop shop carries “beautifully made educational and Montessori-style toys that really stand the test of time,” says Melissa Wachman of the blog Lullabies and Louboutins, who has been shopping there since her first child was born seven years ago. (Maison’s Ashley Wu, whose children are 3 and 6 years old, says it’s her favorite, too.) This being the Upper East Side, you’ll find the occasional $90 Areaware rattle, but the jam-packed shop — which has been around since 1931 and is reportedly the city’s oldest continuously operating toy store — “has a small-town feel,” adds Wachman, “and staff who are genuinely warm and helpful. They will even personally call you when a toy you want comes back in stock.”

For an Indie Selection

Boomerang Toys, 119 W. Broadway; boomerangtoys.com

For writer and publisher Stephanie LaCava, Boomerang Toys is, at about a thousand square feet, “the perfect size, not overwhelming.” You do have to shimmy through the few aisles teeming with all manner of LEGOs and Barbies, but the knowledgeable staff is always eager (in a not-annoying way) to help you navigate or to simply tell you whatever the hot toy of the moment is for certain age groups — like those Pop It! and Crazy Aaron’s fidget toys that are popular among the TikTok crowd these days ($10). While the neighborhood landscape around Boomerang has changed dramatically since it opened in 2002, the indie shop has remained true to itself: “Everything is bought in limited, small quantities,” says LaCava, who especially loves its book and project section as well as “all those beautiful animal puppets. I am always drawn to the Schleich figures at the back.” If you live in Tribeca, it offers free delivery.

For “Packaging That Rivals Tiffany”

Gifted, 717 Forest Ave., Staten Island; giftedshopny.com

It’s not a toy store per se — “just the cutest indie gift shop that sells unique and totally-not-run-of-the-mill toys and gifts for kids,” according to Melissa Chapman, the blogger behind The Staten Island Family. Longtime customer and grandmother of five Kate O’Shea appreciates the store’s selection of imported toys, especially the small wooden ones from German company HABA, which she loves to give as stocking stuffers to her grandsons. “They were unique, really,” she says. And the in-store packaging elevates the gifts even further, says New Jersey resident and mother of two Rosa Leonetti: “The packaging rivals Tiffany, with the signature blue boxes with the brown ribbon cascading off the side. No one presents a gift like this shop. A $10 gift presents like a $50 gift by the time the owner is done wrapping it.” She adds that the price point is comparable to “any Hallmark store or mall specialty shop” but that the overall ambience is “much more upscale.”

For “Girl Power” Gifts

Awesome Brooklyn, 617 Flatbush Ave., Prospect–Lefferts Gardens; awesomebrooklyn.com

If you’re looking for kid stuff “that you feel good about gifting,” says Kevin Banahan, a former environmental scientist at Harvard and now the owner of Brooklyn skateboard shop SKATEYOGI, this family-run gift emporium is the place for you. There’s a robust selection of girl-power gifts, like the Little Feminist Mini Memory Match game ($5) and the “Be Bold, Baby!” series of books, plus a selection of goods from Black-owned companies, like an “I Love Hip Hop” kids’ T-shirt ($26). Banahan’s favorite purchase so far is a book called What Is Hip-Hop?, by Eric Morse: “It just caught my eye as being such a cool presentation of the history of hip-hop music geared toward a younger reader through rhyming and clay-model illustrations,” he says. “More practically, they have been constantly stocking a supply of fashionable face coverings to help the neighborhood keep safe.”

For Board Games

The Uncommons, 230 Thompson St.; uncommonsnyc.com

“Imagine a rec room from an internet-free time.” That’s how mom of two Susie Lopez characterizes this board-game café, which opened in 2013 and claims to be the first of its kind in Manhattan. Here, kids of all ages can pop in for $5 Mondays through Thursdays (or for $10 on the weekend; minors under 14 must be accompanied by a guardian) to play Catan or Magic or learn chess or choose from its collection of 1,000-plus other games. (It also serves snacks and coffee as well as beer and wine for adults.) But in COVID times, the biggest draw of this spot, according to Lopez, is the selection available for purchase: HABA titles like Hanna Honeybee ($30) for kids as young as 3; games like King of Tokyo ($40) and Smash Up ($35), which are popular with 10-to-12-year-olds. “With parents trying to come up with alternatives to screen time, new and different board games are a lifesaver,” Lopez says. It’s still an option to visit in person — the Uncommons is now open for indoor play and food and drink at 50 percent capacity.

For “Mind-Blowing” Halloween Supplies

Halloween Adventure, 104 Fourth Ave.; newyorkcostumes.com

You may not necessarily think of this as a toy store, but you should, says Seth Cameron, executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts. “We moved in next door to Halloween Adventure a few years ago, and the perpetually changing and thematically incoherent window display immediately captured my kids’ attention. When we finally took them inside, it blew their minds. Now they beg to go inside daily. Given the sheer amount of inventory, there’s always something new for them to discover. We own too many capes and masks to count and have an arsenal of spider-webbing we deploy no matter the season.” Like many small businesses in the city, Halloween Adventure’s physical store is closed owing to COVID, but it hopes to celebrate at least one more Halloween. To help it stay open, the store asks you to come shop this fall or, if you’re unable to come in person, buy a gift card.

For Pretty Much Anything

Pizzazzz Toyz, 281 Court St., Cobble Hill; instagram.com/pizzazzz_toyz_and_kidz

“Pizzazzz is a perfect New York City store,” says Books Are Magic owner Emma Straub, whose two kids are ages 5 and 7. “There is not an inch of wasted space. Toys are stacked to the ceiling along the narrow aisles, and children dart quickly to their chosen kingdoms — LEGOs, trains, action figures, dolls, PAW Patrol vehicles.” (The prices here are moderate — Pokémon cards start at $5, Kid Made Modern crafts kits at $15.) “There may be easier stores to maneuver a stroller,” Straub says, but this nearly 20-year-old Cobble Hill standby has that elusive quality that reminds you why it’s great to shop in New York: “They always have what I need,” Straub says. Just park the stroller outside.

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