Travel

A Big Toy Store in a Small Town

  • By Heidi Coryell Williams
  • Photography by Whitebox Weddings

It’s all fun and games for John Taylor, founder and owner of O.P. Taylor’s toy store in downtown Brevard. And so far, no one’s gotten hurt.

John Taylor at O.P. Taylor's toy shop

An air raid siren sounds, but no one flinches. Maybe it’s the horn’s volume, or lack of it, that fails to induce alarm. Or maybe it’s because anything goes in this multilevel toy store in the heart of historic downtown Brevard. Here, reality is suspended, age is irrelevant, and a siren is simply a ringing cell phone.

A man with a rainbow beanie and a salt-and-pepper goatee glances at the face of his phone before bringing it to his ear: “This is John.”

To be more precise, this is John Taylor. And his 6,000-square-foot toy shop — a mainstay in Brevard since the late 1980s — is, quite simply, a tribute to his lifelong pursuit of happiness. Here at O.P. Taylor’s, almost nothing runs on batteries, but pretty much everything engages the mind and enlivens the spirit. Be it a mind-bending three-dimensional puzzle or an inertia-harnessing PlasmaCar, everything is, in a word, awesome.

“This is a crazy store,” Taylor says, as if he has nothing to do with the spectacle surrounding him. Indeed, if you ask him, the whole thing is just one big fluke still waiting to blow up in his face — and if it does, so be it. Because it’s just money, and frankly, what he’s paid in over the years has been well worth the ride.

It seems unlikely, though, that the shop, which serves a clientele of local devotees and far-flung out-of-towners, will be anything but successful. O.P. Taylor’s, named as a play on both John’s name and that of Mayberry’s native son, sits at the center of Brevard’s retail district. When it opened in 1987, it was not a toy store but a retail clothing shop carrying outdoorsy brands, such as Columbia and Patagonia. Taylor was running a restaurant at the time. Before moving to Brevard, he spent 10 years in Sarasota, Florida, where he worked as a paramedic.

Taylor opened the clothing shop after he went to buy a pair of khaki pants downtown and couldn’t find any. Then he hired an 18-year-old girl to run the place. Not long into the apparel store venture, he got the idea to add a small toy section next to the ladies’ dressing rooms. He explains all this, by the way, through a pig puppet that he’s working with his hand. “We thought we’d sell more clothing if we added a play area,” the pig explains. “Instead, we made more money selling toys.”

Maze of activity

When looking for O.P. Taylor’s, don’t expect an FAO Schwarz-like entryway. There are no whirling lights or chirping music at the corner of South Broad and Main streets, where the 110-year-old storefront stands. In fact, aside from a pair of man-size toy soldiers flanking O.P. Taylor’s entrance, the building blends into the downtown landscape. In a past life, the building housed a feed and seed store, a pharmacy, and an attorney’s office. Its exterior hasn’t changed much since about 1940, although the inside has been thoroughly gutted and rehabbed.

These days, the interior is a maze of color and activity. Its contents range from the familiar — pink rain boots with lime-green butterflies, an orange magnifying glass, a long, draping, plush snake — to the slightly odd, such as ventriloquism gear. As Taylor canvasses the store, a shopper stops him to ask, “Where are your Hippity Hops?”

The Toy Man turns his head, the propeller on his beanie rotating a few degrees to the right, and checks with one of his clerks before responding, grimly: “I’m sorry. It seems there’s a severe Hippity Hop shortage. But we should be getting some in soon.” 

Here, the shelves are filled with so much familiarity, it’s easy to overlook the uniqueness found within O.P. Taylor’s walls — although it’s everywhere. The same might be said for the town itself.

Brevard, a quintessential Southern retreat with its old-time soda shops, bicycles parked on downtown sidewalks, and holiday gatherings (complete with carolers and fire pits for marshmallow roasts), has a few oddities of its own. For starters, it’s home to an unusually large population of white squirrels, which the township celebrates with everything from an annual music festival to a squirrel box derby. About 80 years ago, it seems the remote mountain town drew crowds to watch ostriches race down Main Street — directly in front of where O.P. Taylor’s now stands.

A slightly eccentric toy store seems fitting, as does Taylor’s role in running it. The son of a hotelier, Taylor grew up in Florida and Rhode Island. He and his brother first came to Brevard for summer camp in 1965. (“I was the outstanding camper that year. Been downhill ever since …”) His parents fell in love with Brevard, bought a place in the early 1970s, and eventually retired here.

“My dad was a total optimist,” Taylor says. “He said I could do anything, and he was right. What have you got to lose?” As a tribute to his father, Taylor and his wife, Susie, not only named their son after him, but the O.P. Taylor’s store building was dedicated as the D.L. Taylor Building on Father’s Day 1989. Affectionately known as Bud, Taylor’s father passed away several years ago. “Everyone loved my dad,” he reminisces. “In Sarasota, all I had to say is, ‘I’m Bud Taylor’s son,’ and people would open their arms and say, ‘We love Bud.’ He was very charismatic. I wish I had that quality.”

Stretching imaginations

Self-analysis aside, the junior Taylor suffers no shortage of charisma. He cracks jokes almost incessantly, performs magic tricks for kids of all ages, and appears to have built a lucrative livelihood simply by selling “stuff to stretch your imagination.” Pretty much everything stocked on the store’s shelves has gone through the creativity panel, which consists of his two children: Kaden, 18, and Daniel, 15. His daughter leans toward the artistic and crafty; his son is more into science. It’s no coincidence that these are Taylor’s two favorite sections of the store.

With a bank of boxed science experiments stacked ceiling-high before him, Taylor explains, “Science is a big part of growing up.” It certainly has been for Daniel. The store sells a brand called Thames & Kosmos, which has a category of kits focused on “alternative energy and environmental science” — wind power, solar energy, and hydrogen fuel cells, to name a few. Taylor offers up pros and cons about more than a dozen of the different science kits — from a baking soda-and-vinegar rocket to the really high-tech ones.

That’s when he starts talking about a science fair project Daniel did one year. In short, Daniel got a lawn mower to run on water. (Amazingly enough, he lost the competition to a kid who tested the strength of fishing line. The judges said Daniel had a great project, but he used technology that “already existed and was only an exercise in engineering.”)

But it seems that long before Daniel was old enough to build a hydrogen fuel cell for a Snapper, he was using the scientific method to have fun other ways — including building elaborate booby traps for Taylor to walk into when he would return home from the store late at night. With everyone in bed, Taylor would open the door, a trip wire would catch, and all of a sudden lights were blazing and music was blaring.

The recollection cements Taylor in place for a rare moment, and he stands almost motionless on the store floor, a wide smile spread across his face. It’s as if he’s pausing to savor the memory for just a few seconds longer.

‘Only money’

Taylor admits he’s impulsive. He compares himself, modestly, to his brother, a successful businessman who built a portfolio of conservative investments that has paid off exponentially and left him set for life.

Taylor, meanwhile, owns four shops in downtown Brevard and is mortgaged to the hilt, most recently going in with a group of investors to buy and revive an AM radio station. His show, “Thursday Morning with John,” airs from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and is not averse to the occasional station break so that he can field testy phone calls from his mother — be it about an off-color joke or his insistence that we are not alone in the universe.

Taylor once told his brother that he envied his sensibility (inherited from his mother). His brother told him that he’d always wished he had John’s willingness to take risks (his father’s trait). It was one of those flashbulb moments that stuck with Taylor. “It’s only money,” he says. “If something doesn’t work, I’ll just do something else. I’ve been practicing just in case: ‘Welcome to Wal-Mart!’”

Welcome to the carnival

For every toy that stretches the imagination at O.P. Taylor’s, it seems there are two more stocked purely to feed folks’ habits. Model train habits. Slot car habits. Erector construction toy habits.

Meandering into the shop’s first-floor hobby section, shoppers find themselves elbow-to-elbow with hobbyists and hobby wannabes. And almost everyone here finds his way to the Carnival, a small city of Lionel trains stretching roughly the length and width of several foosball tables. Green buttons, all at child’s-eye level, control more than a dozen different mechanical scenes, at the center of which stands a Ferris wheel, elaborately constructed beneath a Plexiglas roof.

It is a feat of engineering, which begs the question: Who put it together? It turns out that Taylor and one of his employees, Dale Brigman, are responsible. Brigman, a retired United States Department of Defense employee (“an old spy,” quips Taylor), worked at the nearby Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI). The satellite data collection facility closed in 1995, and now Brigman, whose title at the store is, simply, Dale, works a couple of days a week putting together some of the more intricate store vignettes.

On this day, however, it seems he’s only enduring Taylor’s bad jokes while unloading pallets of Playmobil sets from a delivery truck. Stoic Dale and silly John seem an unlikely pairing. But then again, so is a big toy store in a small town, revelry in science, and an entrepreneurship discovered by accident. And yet here they all are, in this repository for all things incredulous.

This is John. This is the South’s toy store. A little eccentric, a lot of fun. Tread freely.
 

Go Play

O.P. Taylor’s
The Coolest Toy Store on the Planet

2 South Broad Street
Brevard, N.C. 28712
(800) 500-TOYS (8697)
optaylors.com

Heidi Coryell Williams’s work has appeared in Resort Living, G, The Magazine of Greenville, and MAMM magazine. She lives in Clemson, South Carolina, with her husband and two daughters.

This entry was posted in December 2010, Mountains, People, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Big Toy Store in a Small Town

  1. loren says:

    do you have zoomer? also i am going to north carolina on sunday see you there

  2. Carol M Henderson says:

    AGREE! GREATEST TOY STORE IN THE WORLD!

  3. Timothy Wright stopped in our OZ shop and left your name and web site as he thought we would get a kick out of seeing your place just as he had enjoyed your place. So it was exciting to see what a neat shop you have and the fun we both enjoy from our customers. If we ever get down that way we will stop in! Is one of your locations connected to the Wizard of Oz place that is only open each fall for one weekend? They have all the characters and you sort of walk through the story. Do you carry Wizard of Oz items too?
    Nice to hear of you folks!
    Karen Johnson

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