In the late ‘70s, Romalda and Charles Edwards graduated from UT and looked around for a small business to run. They started making toys by hand with the aim of selling them to retailers. Charles carved the shapes from salvaged wood scraps, and Romalda gave them a decorative coating of paint. Terra Toys was born.
When the selling to retailers angle failed to pan out, they took a risk and opened a brick-and-mortar location on S. Congress Ave., adding matryoshkas (nesting dolls) imported from Russia and Steiff plush animals made in Germany. A couple of moves later, they recently celebrated 35 years of business at their current location, 2438 W. Anderson Ln.
Sylvia Edwards, the oldest of their three daughters, now handles much of the day-to-day operations, although Romalda and Charles still come to work in the store most days. Sylvia was born into the business—quite literally. She entered the world escorted by a midwife in the Edwards residence at the back of the S. Congress location.
“When I was a little kid, I would pretend I worked here,” she says. “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a shop owner.”
On a quiet October morning weeks before the holiday rush, Edwards sat down to answer some of our questions.
AF: What are the pitfalls and benefits of working with your family?
Family businesses are one of those things where when it works, it’s one of the most beautiful, functional, magical things you’ll ever see. But when it’s not working, it’s one of the saddest, draining things.
I watch “Restaurant Impossible” a lot. There’s this really tough manager guy, and he comes into these failing restaurants and makes them over. In the beginning, you can see that family just struggling. No one is adopting the roles that need to be taken care of. Nepotism creeps in, where they have the position because they’re just part of the blood.
There are really slippery slopes, and we’re hyper-aware of them. That’s why our dynamic is working so well. We’re very aware of who’s pulling what weight and what job duty needs to be done by what person.
That’s a big key for any family-run business: have accountability and follow-up with everybody’s position.
AF: Small businesses are challenging. Why did this one make it?
My parents pioneered this amazing path for Terra Toys by staying consistent and true to their buying ideas: classic, fun and beautiful. That breeds this really dense, beautiful, well-curated collection.
People come in now and ask, “Where are your other locations?”
This is the only Terra Toys in the world, and we’ve been owner-operated by the same people since the beginning. I think that it’s important to let people know that this is one of the epitomes of a mom-and-pop, home grown, from-the-ground-up story of a little business.
AF: What do you look for in the toys you sell?
I look for something that could have been a toy 50 years ago. We want to have something that in any time, from the 1800s up to now, would still be recognizable. What we mean by “fun” is that you know what to do with it when it’s in your hand. Everybody knows what to do with a bouncy ball or a spinning top. There’s an aesthetic, a beauty in a lot of the toys we look for.
Customers will come in and say, “Show me your hottest, newest toy for a 2 year old.” Well, everything is new to a 2 year old. They’re experiencing the world for the first time. So, a spinning top is just as novel to a 2 year old as it would be a thousand years ago.
AF: Beyond toy shopping, what can parents and kids do at Terra Toys?
Our events are always free. There’s the Fairy Tea Party in June, where you get to dress up like a fairy and make a fairy out of felt and flower petals, yarn and beads. There’s Bubble Day, where you blow bubbles and learn about bubble science. There’s Origami Day, where you learn how to fold origami.
We just opened The Wind-Up, which is our coffee shop. Everything is organic and fair trade—all the coffee, even down to the milk and sugar. We care about that a lot.
Through our business offerings, we’re trying to stress the ideas we care about: supporting our own infrastructure and earning a living wage. We care about locally-sourced items. We try to transmit that idea through our food and products.
AF: What’s going on right now?
Every year, we get our staff to list their favorite toys. Those items become our Top 10 Toys. We display them and demonstrate them throughout Christmas time. With over 2,700 vendors and 65,000 items, the possibilities are endless. But the Top 10 Toys is a good starting point.
We have free wrapping, all year round. During Christmas, we move our wrap desk over to KidOshoe.
AF: Do you have other family members that work in the store?
My sister Neeka helped found The Wind-up. She’s a barista and the curator for our gallery of art by local artists.
My sister Natalie lives in Salt Lake City, but she makes art for the gallery, and she comes at Christmas time to help.
Here’s a sneak peek at the Terra Toys staff’s annual Top Ten list of best toys. For the complete slate, visit terratoys.com/news.
Flip Flop ABC Blocks by Mirari for ages 12 months and up
Sands Alive! by Play Visions for ages 36 months and up
Chrono Bomb action game by Patch Products for ages 7 years and up