Toys With ‘Play Value’

By Leigh A. Jensen –

On a crisp winter afternoon, a group of about 15 children, all younger than 5, is seated in the courtyard at La Encantada, perched on huge foam puzzle pieces in primary colors. They eagerly await Autumn Ruhe, owner of Mildred & Dildred toy store, to come outside and begin story time.

A leaf gently floats off a nearby Aspen tree, falling to the ground just in time for a curious chubby hand to furtively snatch it off the concrete. The leaf is quickly dropped and forgotten once “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” begins.

A quick stroll around the toy store reveals it’s not like most. The bookshelf offers classics like “Jane Eyre” and “Anna Karenina” – but in a digestible form – simplified into a toddler-friendly picture book, complete with cardboard pages that can withstand the occasional bite mark.

One corner of the store boasts toys and books for desert dwellers, because every young Tucson native should have a stuffed javelina or Gila monster. A turquoise chest of drawers with oversized red knobs is filled with things that only cost a dollar, categorized in ways like “things that pop” and “things that are squishy.”

“We try to look at play value when ordering toys. We want something that will last a while and hold a kid’s attention – as opposed to something that turns on and makes crazy noises and is really cool for only five minutes,” Ruhe said.

Ruhe grew up in Tucson, attending a Montessori school and then St. Gregory College Preparatory School (now The Gregory School), before studying art history in college. After graduation, she worked a few odd jobs in town, but most enjoyed her time at Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s, the long-beloved toy store in Crossroads Plaza. At 25, Ruhe decided she was “just naïve enough” to strike out on her own and open Mildred & Dildred at La Encantada in 2007.

She named the store as an homage to her grandfather, who would often tell Ruhe and her sister stories about a mischievous pair of sisters named Mildred and Dildred, who were always getting into trouble and having to be rescued by their loving grandfather. And it was her grandfather who loaned her the money to start the business.

At storytime, it’s clear that many of the children are regulars. In between the three books she reads, Ruhe leads the group in song. “I am a seal and I clap my hands! I am a cat and I arch my back!”

Most of the kids know the prescribed motions for the song, and aren’t shy about playing along with Ruhe, whose lively animated voice makes it impossible to not have fun. After the stories and songs are done, nearly all of the kids and their parents wander back into the store, milling around and talking with each other and Ruhe. This sense of community is part of what makes Mildred & Dildred so special.

“We want to be a part of people’s everyday lives and give them a reason to come back,” Ruhe said. “Now more than ever, to be a brick and mortar, you need to provide an experience. You need to be a destination.”

Ruhe relishes the opportunity to make her toy store a valuable part of the community. In addition to the popular biweekly storytime, she plans special events like Easter egg hunts and trick-or-treating parties. Mildred & Dildred also hosts plays and special author events, and Ruhe often goes to nearby schools for career days and book readings.

“I know there are a lot of choices when it comes to toys – not just with Target and stores like that, but online as well. So we really try to make ourselves as useful as we can … to become a part of the community and become relevant and integral, so people have a reason to come back.”

When it comes to purchasing for her business, Ruhe is serious about child’s play. “Going to a Montessori school, I always had this mind-set of learning through playing. So I try to pick out toys that will help kids figure out the world and facilitate imaginative and creative thinking. It’s really amazing how kids use toys as tools.”

After a quick conversation about pregnancy and the differences between raising boys and girls, Ruhe wraps up a birthday gift for a 6-year-old. She lets the partygoer choose the ribbon for her friend’s present from a collection of brightly colored spools behind the counter, and her mother promises that they’ll return the following week to pick out a gift for another birthday party.

“I really do have the greatest job ever,” Ruhe said. “As for the next 10 or 15 years, I’d like to stick around as long as the community will have me.”

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