Great holiday shopping away from chain stores

Toys show off their arty side at Rotofugi, a Chicago boutique specializing in stylish toys and pop culture collectibles.

While it’s easier than ever to point and click to browse through a holiday shopping list, it hardly matches the adventure of wandering through a toy store. “It’s really fun to explore a space and find something unique that people on your list would like,” says Matt Berical of, a digital media brand for dads. Although major retail chains such as Toys R Us have closed, independent stores still offer a sense of discovery. Berical shares some favorites.

Archie McPheeSeattle

Wacky doesn’t even begin to describe this Seattle institution, which proudly houses a rubber chicken museum and sells everything from fake cat vomit to librarian action figures. “It’s the classic, goofy toy store,” says Berical. “It’s got a lot of stuff you won’t find anywhere else, a lot of presents that look like they’ve been transported from 1950s cereal boxes.”

Dinosaur Farm, South Pasadena, California

Forget extinction. Dinosaurs still rule the roost in this temple to T. rex and their lizard-brained pals. Shoppers will find clothing, books, games, inflatables, backpacks and more. “It’s heaven for kids obsessed with dinosaurs. There’s always a good crop of new dinosaur toys,” says Berical.

Charles Ro Supply, Malden, Mass.

Even in the age of video games and electronic toys, model trains have a devoted following. For those aspiring engineers, this Boston-area store is a go-to. Not only has the store long been the nation’s premier Lionel Trains dealership, but its showroom features a 32-by-16-foot operational layout with six trains running every Saturday. “It’s a model train paradise,” says Berical.

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Gods and Monsters, Orlando, Florida

Think of this shop as a comic book theme park with lots of reading material, plus giant t-shirts, figurines, and displays. The store has an adults-only bar open Wednesday through Sunday. “It caters to all ages, a fun place to walk around and discover,” says Berical.

Mary Arnold Toys, New York

This Upper East Side retailer has claimed the title of the nation’s oldest continuously operating toy store. It opened in 1931 and offers a personal shopping service, in person or by telephone. Employees are quick to offer gift advice to confused customers. “It’s a personal favourite, a really fun place to stop and fall in love with variety,” says Berical.

Kappa Toys, Las Vegas

Despite its reputation, Sin City knows how to take care of children. This two-location boutique offers nostalgic favorites and contemporary toys. It opened in 2014 in a mall made from modified shipping containers and expanded into the city’s glitzy Fashion Show Mall. Berical says it gives travelers a welcome break from slot machines and showgirls. “It’s nice to have a family store to walk into and know your kids will find something to play with,” he says.

Maze Games and Puzzles, Washington

It’s easy to get lost in the world of fantasy and role-playing in this store. Not only does it stock a huge inventory of games and supplies, but the shop also hosts events and workshops. Visitors can stroll through a Magic: The Gathering tournament, a Dungeons & Dragons encounter, or even a club devoted to the Rubik’s Cube and other twisty puzzles. “They have staff that can walk you through different tactics and plays,” says Berical.

Toy Safari, Alameda, California

Before a toy hits the shelves of this Bay Area store, it must pass a three-question test: Will a child relate to it? Will the toy inspire play and discovery? Does the style of play change as the child grows? Shoppers find everything from construction toys, such as construction and craft sets, to collectibles such as vintage Star Wars and Disney figures.

Rotofugi, Chicago

Toys show off their artsy side at this Lincoln Park boutique specializing in stylish toys and pop culture collectibles. “You’ll find plenty of original and special-edition toys created by independent designers and toymakers,” says Berical. Highlights include plush and vinyl figures and creations from Eastern and Western designers. Rotofugi often hosts pop-up shops and features art exhibitions in an adjoining gallery.

Smart Toys and Books, Knoxville, Tennessee

Playtime is serious business at this store, which categorizes toys by the skills they promote, such as cooperative play, language, and visual skills. “They focus on toys that stimulate learning and development,” says Berical. There’s still room for fun in a sprawling 2,000 square foot indoor play area, complete with a pirate ship and sand tables.