Smart Toys new owners merge old and new

Sherri Gardner HowellWest Knoxville

Ken and Angela Zhou, the owners of Smart Toys and Books in Franklin Square, jumped into their new business venture with their eyes wide open. They were familiar with the store. They knew kids, having two of their own. They knew a little about operating a retail business, albeit from the restaurant side.

As the Zhous look back on their first year anniversary at Smart Toys, Ken is as happy as a kid in a toy store. The store has transformed, melding the old and the new, and the reality is looking a lot like Zhou’s vision when he took the plunge.

“Retail is tough, and it just keeps getting tougher,” says Zhou. “As much as we loved the store from shopping there and having parties there over the years, we knew it had to change.”

When talking with retiring owner Lynda Blankenship, who started Smart Toys “in a closet” more than 30 years ago, Zhou picked her brain on what worked and what didn’t.

“It always came back to getting people into the store,” he says. “People will tell you how much they love the store, but they still shop online. If you get them into the store, they start to see the benefit of holding the toys and being able to let their children play with the toys to see if they have lasting appeal.”

In addition to the pirate ship, the Interactive Playground features tunnels and climbing areas.

Zhou inverted the store, which was a retail shop with some demonstration toys to play with and party rooms in the back. The new Interactive Playground took center stage, taking up well over half the space in the middle of the store, centerpieced with a custom-made pirate ship with slides and climbing areas, tunnels and places for imaginative play.

In the back is a craft room where children can create artsy masterpieces worthy of any refrigerator. The craft room, complete with supplies, is free. The playground has a charge of $8 for the first child and $5 for siblings. Play sessions, three per day Mondays through Saturdays and two on Sunday, are two hours long.

“The Interactive Playground is really set up for ages 3 to 7,” says Zhou. “We do have some older and some younger who come, but it is best for those ages.”

The hands-on experience in the play area and with the toys around the store is resonating with parents, says Zhou. “Good toys are not inexpensive. Having toys for your child to play with while you watch how they interact with them helps parents make good decisions.”

Party room

RC Night was developed with that concept in mind, says Zhou. “RC – remote control – toys are so expensive. We alternate every Friday at 4 p.m. between RC Night and Family Game Night. With admission to the Playground, kids can play with the remote control cars and trucks and on our big Carrera race track. On Family Game Night, we set up board games for families to play.”

Under the watchful eyes of the Zhous and store manager Kelley Weatherley-Sinclair, daughter of the retired owner, the store is attracting new customers as well as bringing back the old ones. Parents can still reserve a party room for birthday parties, and the twice-a-week Storytime hour is flourishing.

Ziggy, Smart Toys and Books’ iconic frog who grew from a tadpole at the store, is still swimming in his counter-top aquarium.

“We are careful about cleaning and sanitizing, and we limit the number of children allowed at each play session. We watch our inventory, trying to make smart choices for our customers. My children, Olivia and Mason, are becoming toy experts,” says Zhou, with a laugh. “I think we are building on a notable past for a successful future.”

Smart Toys and Books, 9700 Kingston Pike in Franklin Square; 865-394-6060

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