Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine Business Review May 2008.
The Learning Faire
By Craig Smith
Thirty years ago, Lana Stanley and Sandy Jones made one of the biggest decisions of their lives, and opened the Learning Faire toy store. It was a well thought out and adventurous move for the two stay-at-home moms, but the business has been successful and is considered a community resource by many Napa residents.
Now the two partners have made another decision – to retire from their business.
“We still love it and it’s still fun, but it’s time to do something different,” said Stanley.
“I have four grandchildren, and I want to spend time with them, take some classes and try other things,” said Jones. “This has been wonderful, but it’s time for the next chapter.”
Committed to offering quality toys, books and educational games to children up to twelve years in age, The Learning Faire’s clients now include second-generation shoppers – parents who played and learned using Learning Faire games and toys, and grandparents now buying for their grandchildren. “We have always offered merchandise that we considered important in raising children,” said Stanley.
Sandy Jones, originally from Boston, moved to Napa in 1967. She taught school in St. Helena for three years, stopping to raise her two daughters. Lana Stanley, a native Californian, moved to and then back from, Texas, working as a librarian. She moved to Napa in 1977, and met Jones and Wendy Duckhorn, who was originally a partner in the business. All three were stay-at-home moms who wanted to work part time. They originally discussed opening a bookstore, but decided that Napa didn’t need another one. Recognizing that children needed interactive toys that would fully engage them, they shifted focus, and The Learning Faire concept began to develop. After much discussion and planning, the store opened in August 1978. Duckhorn left after a few years.
For the business partners, family is and always has been a priority. In the early days, the store was closed all day Sunday and Monday, so that the three young mothers could each work less than two days a week. When Stanley’s last child was born two months after the store opened, she went to work with mom. The partners rarely missed one of their children’s school events.
Initially, the store emphasized teaching supplies, but in response to customer feedback, educational toys became a priority. Today, their extensive product lines include science and nature, arts and crafts, picture books and early readers, wooden toys, Lego and other building toys, puzzles and games, along with dolls and stuffed animals. Price points vary to accommodate as many customers as possible. A Birthday Club program allows children to fill out a card with items they would like to have. “We resisted that as perhaps being too commercial,” smiled Jones, “but, families have loved it and thanked us for it.” Their strongest attribute is their customer service. “When a parent or grandparent asks, ‘What does a five year old want?’ we can easily make many suggestions in any price range,” said Stanley.
The partners say that educational toys are more important today than ever. Children’s lives are more heavily programmed now than in the past, and they need imaginative play. “Toys are the tools of childhood,” said Stanley. Asked what the most important toy is, both answered quickly, “Parents. The time they spend with their children is very important.”
Stanley and Jones both credit their manager of twenty-six years, Judith Irwin, for much of their success, saying her motivation and energy helps them stay enthusiastic. Another employee, “Mom”, is Patte Dunn who has been with them fourteen years. Making their families a priority has been extended to their employees – school activities come first, and work schedules are adjusted accordingly. “The Learning Faire is family oriented in a very real sense,” said Jones.
The women are not in a hurry to leave the business, and are open as to how that will happen. “Ideally, we’ll sell the business to someone who is as passionate about children’s education as we are.” The partners feel an obligation to a community that has been good to them. “When people tell us that we have become a community resource, it’s quite an honor,” said Jones. “We’d like to see that continue.”
The Learning Faire, open seven days a week, is located at 1343 Main Street, and can be reached at 253-1024.