“I am robbed with my grandchildren,” says Fiona Moriarty as she stands bewildered in front of a large Lego display in a small toy shop in South Dublin, trying to work out what three little ones living in Los Angeles might like for Christmas.
Gavin Yendole, an engineering student who has been working part-time in Stillorgan’s Nimble Fingers for seven seasons to be jolly, is quickly on hand.
As he talks her through some options for the children, the oldest of whom is seven, it becomes clear that while the toys may be pricey, Moriarty doesn’t mind being “robbed with her grandchildren” at all. She loves it in fact.
As she and the engineer-turned-toy-master discuss the matter more, they come to the conclusion that Lego might not be ideal for a two-year-old with a love of putting everything that comes to hand into their mouth, so Gavin leads her to another part of the shop.
“The presents have to be small,” she tells The Irish Times as we appear, as if by magic, by her side. “My son lives in LA and has come back for my birthday and is only here for three days so only has hand luggage, that means whatever I buy has to fit into his small case.”
And when is her birthday?
“It’s today,” she says.
We suggest she shouldn’t be buying presents on her birthday but she doesn’t mind shopping for others on her big day. She knows it would have been easier to order on Amazon and have it shipped from some giant warehouse in California to its final destination in LA, but she has no truck with that business at all.
“I never buy online. Nothing. I have never bought a single thing on the internet. I like help when I‘m shopping and I get it in spades here. This is a great shop,” she says.
‘Coming here just cuts out all the dross’
A rejection of the online arena and a need for help in navigating the sometimes bewildering world of children’s toys is only part of the reason this grandmother is shopping early on a Saturday morning.
“Years and years ago I bought toys for my children here, and then there was a period when I didn’t come in at all but now I have all these little people in my life again and I’m delighted to be back.
“He,” she says gesturing towards Gavin who still scouring the shelves for the perfect little present for a two-year-old, “is showing me exactly what to get and he won’t try to sell me anything I don’t want. Coming here just cuts out all the dross.”
She is speaking on the morning after the Late Late Toy Show and The Irish Times has followed the yellow brick road – or at least the grey, rain-slicked Stillorgan dual carriageway – to the birthplace of the television spectacular which this year had a Wizard of Oz theme.
Nimble Fingers has a toy-storied history, which includes a significant connection to the toy show. The shop was opened by Robert and Hilda Tweedy in 1962 before the world had heard the Beatles play a note or heard James Bond order a martini. The Tweedys sold handicrafts and penny sweets as well as educational toys in what was an almost rural village on the outskirts of Dublin city.
Four years after the doors opened, Ireland’s first shopping centre was built on its doorstep and the neighbourhood was transformed into a large suburb. But the nimble-fingered Tweedys did not have their heads turned by all the concrete and glass modernity, and remained committed to their dream of selling toys that were as functional as they were fun.
In 1975, Pan Collins, a researcher for the Late Late Show and a neighbour, popped in to see what was what. She was intrigued by the Meccano metal building sets and the other crafty toys, and an idea started to form.
She wanted to devote a 30-minute segment of the show in the run-up to Christmas to toys, of all things.
Gay Byrne was not buying it, at least not initially. But Collins persisted and recruited other members of the team to her cause. Eventually Gaybo relented and the slot aired. It was an immediate hit, and the following year a full Late Late was devoted to toys, as it has been for almost half a century now.
It’s not every shop in the country that can lay claim to one of the most famous and uniquely Irish television events in modern entertainment history, but Nimble Fingers wears its badge of honour discreetly. There are no plaques on the wall or pictures of Late Late Toy Shows of times past sitting by the cash registers.
There is talk of the toy show among shoppers though, and the place buzzes with the excited hum of small children, tired but happy, and struggling to cope with sugar hangovers – although maybe that was just this reporter.
It is immediately clear to anyone with ears that letters to Santa are getting updated in real time as little ones walk up one aisle and down the other.
Dylan Menzies is dancing beside the Squishmallows and the Lottie dolls – having rushed to the shop in full football gear, shin pads and everything – with his mother and grandmother, who is buying him a pre-Christmas present.
“A headset, rugby shoes, chess and a teddy,” the nine-year-old says when asked what is on his letter to Santa. Nothing from the toy show has been added, but there is time yet.
He is quite tech savvy, and does a lot of shopping on Amazon in a friend’s house. When surprise is expressed that his pal’s parent would give children free rein to add whatever toys take their fancy to a virtual cart, the picture becomes clearer.
“My friend’s mum always says we can get loads of things there so we go on to the website and we buy all the stuff, we put it into our cart and everything but it just never arrives,” he says, a little confused by the inefficiencies of the largest online retailer in the world and gloriously clueless as to how credit cards might work and when they might be needed.
He doesn’t mind when the toys do not come, the fun is in the “buying” of them, he says.
‘We have loads of Sylvanian Families stuff in our house. I bought it when my children were young and now their children play with them. Those presents last forever’
Dylan’s grandmother Gina Menzies listens in. She hasn’t much time for Amazon and prefers to spend her money locally. “Nimble Fingers is my favourite shop,” she says. “I love a reason to come in here. The staff are so helpful.”
She looks at the Sylvanian Families and it’s as if a light bulb goes off behind her eyes. “Look at these,” she exclaims with delight. “We have loads of Sylvanian Families stuff in our house. I bought it when my children were young and now their children play with them. Those presents last forever.”
Her daughter Vicky approaches weighed down with shopping. She laughs as she tells us her four-year-old daughter Lydia calls this shop Mister Fingers. “It does sound quite cute when she says it but it might sound dodgy to others.”
Mister Fingers? Maybe just a bit.
Having found the right toys for the Birthday Gran, Gavin is back behind the till. “Kids are always so wide-eyed the day after the toy show and I know we will get calls from people asking for stuff they’ve seen on the show that I’ve never heard of.”
Pat Staunton is long retired, but he is in the shop this morning with a twinkle in his eye undimmed by the passage of time. The Westport native moved to Canada in 1968 to work with the Macmillan publishing house and was transferred to London and then Dublin to head its operation here. He left to set up his own publishing company, making his debut with the first Ballymaloe cookery book in 1973.
Fast forward a decade and he found himself in the toy shop flogging children’s books to the Tweedys. Almost on a whim he asked if they would be interested in selling the shop. They were, and a deal was done which saw Nimble Fingers change hands.
“For two years, I said: ‘This is the biggest mistake of my life’,” he recalls. “I was being hammered. I remember going home at night. I’d have a pint, cool down and pick up the Evening Press and say: ‘Why did I ever get into this?’ I didn’t know the business. I must have moved banks three times, but then I got a very good bank manager who doubled my overdraft.”
That gave him some financial breathing space. Another turning point was just around the corner. Irish Times journalist Patsey Murphy – who would later become the first editor of this magazine – visited the shop. “She did a write-up one Christmas and the next day there were queues out the door,” he says.
The article appeared on December 4th, 1986, and opened with the journalist noting that “since the decline of the video game boom four years ago there have been no real developments in the toy industry unless you count last year’s onslaught of Transformers and other robotic wonders”.
Murphy highlighted popular shops for toys including Roches Stores, Quinnsworth, Switzers and Clerys, but saved special praise for “the more exclusive specialist toy shops such as Nimble Fingers in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, Wooden Hearts in Galway [and] Pinocchio in Cork. Here you will find more personal service, good backup on spare parts and repairs and a selection of hand-selected, traditional and educational toys.”
‘I once spent £50,000 on them and we couldn’t move in the shop for Beanie Babies’
It is interesting that the “decline” in the video game boom has been – somewhat – reversed in more recent times, and all the small toy shops referenced by Murphy are still standing and still well known for the quality of the toys they sell and the customer care they offer, while most of the large shops she mentioned have long since disappeared.
What made Nimble Fingers stand apart then and now is a refusal to follow trends. For Staunton, “play value” trumps everything. He wanted to sell toys that children would come back to again and again. “Lego is something, for instance, that people will play with and then put away and then play with again. With the flash stuff it is a one-day wonder.”
He scored big on Beanie Babies, he recalls. “I took them in and had them for two years before anyone else had them, we couldn’t believe the numbers we were selling. I once spent £50,000 on them and we couldn’t move in the shop for Beanie Babies. Then Gaybo did a special thing on the toy show with a robot and a Beanie Baby and everyone wanted them.”
Some calls he did get wrong. He was unconvinced by Sylvanian Families and was amazed when they were a “phenomenal success”. He also bought boxes of Action Man figures in the early 1980s because his son Gareth loved them. “They just didn’t suit here, people do not come here for that kind of thing.”
‘Some parents can go overboard on the educational but there has to be an element of fun, or else there is no point’
Pat took a step back from the toy shop more than 15 years ago and the Action Man-loving son took a step forward.
Gareth doesn’t play with Action Men any more but that is one change. Since he took over he has dealt far more in data and tech than his dad ever did. “In the old days it was just the basic till,” he says.
The type of toys he sells hasn’t changed that much, mind you. “We still do a lot of classic stuff, toys that have a bit of longevity rather than something that just gets an hour of use.”
His guiding light is the same as his father’s. He wants “toys that kids will come back to again and again. Toys that really, really engage them.”
‘People come in the door with the smiles on their face, It’s just a lovely environment’
He has a note of caution for anyone shopping for toys this Christmas. “Some parents can go overboard on the educational but there has to be an element of fun, or else there is no point.”
He is optimistic about the future. “There’s always a market for a shop like us, niche retail, where you look after your customers, you put a lot of thought into your products and support local businesses. Unfortunately, there’s not many Irish manufacturers. We’ve tried to, you know, build it up over the years because, unfortunately, there is only so many of them.”
Gareth works alongside his sister Katherine. Just over seven years ago he suggested she work part-time for a few weeks, and then asked her to consider going full-time. Initially she said no but he persisted and she gave it a few more weeks. “And now here I am seven years later,” she says with a laugh.
She loved growing up in a toy shop. “I didn’t get away with probably as much as I’d hoped though. I’d come in quite a lot, do a lap with a basket, fill it up and then it would be emptied.”
Like a 20th-century Dylan with his Amazon cart.
She clearly enjoys the work she does now. “People come in the door with the smiles on their face, It’s just a lovely environment. I think we’re so well established, we’ve been here 60 years, we have an extremely loyal customer base. And during Covid, as well, we got more customers, people became more conscious of buying locally, that brought in a whole new customer base.”
‘I think all those unique little shops are brilliant. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them’
And do people still want to shop locally?
“They do until they until they can’t get what they want. The parents that come in here have such fond memories of coming in and they want to recreate those memories for their children. Our dad did all the hard work, so we are just kind of keeping it afloat.”
Aileen and Steve Haugh and their 13-month-old son Justin from Glenageary are in the shop looking for a Scuttlebug. “This shop has been here since we were young, Aileen says. “It has different toys to the ones you might find online and I have some great memories of it as a child. I want our child to have great memories of it too.”
Another shopper, Colm Doyle, approaches Gavin at the till with a couple of toys and he’s asked if he would like them wrapped.
“They’re for Christmas,” he whispers, pointing to the little girl in the pram. She is playing with her fingers and is oblivious to what is happening above her. What will be happening later this month hasn’t gone over her head, mind you.
“There is a lot of talk about Santa in the creche and she is very excited,” he says. “It’s all Santa, Santa, Santa, all the time now.”
As he heads to the door he pauses, looks back and says, almost wistfully: “I think all those unique little shops are brilliant. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them.”
Toys are us: Five other great independent toy shops around Ireland
Wooden Heart, Quay Street, Galway
This shop opened its doors on Galway’s Quay Street when the city of the tribes was a , different place to the one it has now become. Cars trundled past the tiny shop, spread over two storeys, and the very notion of a Latin Quarter, wine bars and Michelin-starred restaurants would have seemed absurd. While Galway has changed beyond all recognition – physically and culturally – Wooden Heart, in a building which dates back to the 16th century, has remained true to its guiding principles with an emphasis on wooden toys and ethical toys which have been sustainably sourced. Its physical footprint may be small, but it has always punched above its weight. There is barely room to swing a stuffed cat on the shop floor, but you will be able to take some comfort in knowing that the piled-high stock has been chosen with care.
Pinocchio’s, Paul Street, Cork
This family-run toy shop in Cork City centre will turn 40 next year and is likely to delight children as much now as it did in the 1980s. It stocks a wide range of high-quality toys with an emphasis on well made – often wooden – toys with a high play value. A key aim of this shop is to sell toys that will be played with not just for Christmas but for months or even years after they are received. It also has an excellent range of musical soft toys as well as shape sorters and pull-alongs and whatever else you might want to keep little ones amused over the festive period ahead. For older kids there are dolls, train sets, doll houses and other toys that have endured for generations.
Little Ones, Parnell Street, Ennis
This is a relative newcomer on the toy shop scene having opened its doors in 2007. But like some of the more well-established toy shops that have served Irish children and their parents for generations, it has customer service and high-quality toys at the core of what it does. The shop stocks classic toys which are environmentally friendly, and in 2019 the shop also developed its own baby clothing range made of organic cottons.
The Bubble Room, Strand Street, Skerries
This shop in the heart of Skerries opened its doors in 2008 and offers a unique, child-friendly environment, allowing kids and adults to browse in a chilled-out atmosphere. Like the other shops its focus is on play value rather than stocking the so-called “must-have” toys of the season. You are unlikely to find Mine Craft or games consoles or anything by way of high-tech wizardry on the shelves, but you will find marbles, dice, cards and modelling clay which children will love, and parents will love to see them play with.
Duffy’s Toyworld, Dunleer, Co Louth
Claiming to be the “longest-running Irish toy shop”, Duffy’s Toyworld has been selling toys in Dunleer since 1938. Tony Duffy, who took over from his father in 1966, still runs the shop at the age of 79, refusing to stock electronic products, focusing instead on toys which spark creativity, curiosity, imagination, perseverance and problem-solving skills. They also have an extensive range of sensory toys for children with autism.