Written by Daniel Walton | Photos by Anthony Harden
Flights of fancy in the analog world is the name of the game for this family business.
The Dancing Bear Toys store on Kenilworth Road in Asheville preserves the first money ever earned at the location under the glass of its “toy bar.” Beneath the copies of Codenames and colorful building sets, there rests a dollar bill scrawled over with signatures and a shining, carefully arranged pyramid of heads-up quarters. But beside that cash sits the reason the toy bar is usually covered with boxes for playthings: a collection of business cards bearing the owl logo of the risqué restaurant chain, Hooters.
“You’ll know we’re in trouble when we start taking up the lid of the bar to get more money,” deadpans Dave Evers. He and his family appreciate the irony in transforming a former adult playground into a child’s paradise, but the move made sense. Since buying the toy store in 1993, the Evers family has grown Dancing Bear into a Western North Carolina institution. After opening a second store in Hendersonville in 1997, the family significantly expanded their Asheville business when the old Hooters location became available in 2013. The new space offered over three times the room as their former storefront, which was located just down the hill on nearby Tunnel Road.
As large toy purveyors such as Toys “R” Us and KB Toys have filed for bankruptcy and internet shopping has transformed the retail landscape, Dancing Bear has found a new old-fashioned way to thrive. By combining a philosophy of personal service and imaginative play with the best practices of modern sellers, the Evers have delighted children of all ages for nearly 25 years. And at the heart of it all is what Sarah Evers calls “an upside-down family business.”
Flipping the script
Most family-owned enterprises begin with the older generation; think the “mom-and-pop” ownership of the traditional small-town grocer. But the Evers parents, Dave and Mary, got interested in the toy business only after daughter Sarah started working for the original owner of Dancing Bear, Jim Proctor, at the age of 19 in 1991.
During her first couple of years with Dancing Bear, Sarah helped Proctor move from Biltmore Village to Tunnel Road and developed her skills operating a toy store. She was soon comfortable managing the entire place on her own, but Proctor was thinking of getting out of the business. He had several potential buyers, but no takers, as Sarah recalls reporting to her parents. She was living at home at the time, and over dinner, she shared her worries that Dancing Bear could shutter its doors. “Everybody was sad that the store might be closing,” remembers Mary. “It was so rare to have a quality toy store—you couldn’t find good wooden blocks at the corner drugstore.”
That dinner-table discussion led the Evers to explore buying Dancing Bear themselves. “It was absolutely kind of whimsical. We’d always talked about how interesting it’d be to have a family business, and then we saw the toy store,” says Mary. Adds Dave with a smile, “Somewhat facetiously, I’ll say it was a way to keep our daughter employed.” On December 10, 1993, the family closed the deal.
Neither of the elder Evers had previously been entrepreneurs; at the time they bought Dancing Bear, Dave and Mary were working full-time as a psychologist and early-childhood education teacher, respectively. But they had gained both the skills and capital to set up shop from their experience renovating old houses. “Dave learned to do electrical and plumbing from Time-Life books, and we fixed up a duplex in Charlotte, which we sold for a little pot of money that we could invest in this business,” explains Mary.
Although the Evers set up their new enterprise with Mary as the president and Dave as secretary-treasurer, Sarah remained in charge of Dancing Bear’s day-to-day operations. Her sister, Erika Evers, soon moved back to Asheville and joined Sarah on the shop floor. Erika recounts that the unexpected combination of two young women as managers baffled many of the toy company representatives who visited the fledgling store.
“Most of the reps were middle-aged men, and I’m quite certain they weren’t sure if we were going to make it,” Erika says. “We’d get them asking, ‘Do you want to ask your mommy or daddy?’” Mary puts it even more bluntly: “They wanted the white-haired ones, and when Dave walked in, all attention was on him. There was definitely a little ageism and sexism going on.”
Learning the ropes
Sarah’s experience as a Dancing Bear employee had made her an expert in customer service and toy selection, but with no formal business education—her college degree is in environmental policy, which currently inspires the store’s rooftop solar panels and cardboard recycling—she found new challenges at the level of ownership. “It turned out to be really different between running a toy store and running a toy store,” she says, with a laugh.
As an illustration, Sarah shares the story of the Dancing Bear’s first Christmas, just 14 days after the Evers took over the shop. She found that, despite the store’s established success under the previous ownership, qualification for credit didn’t carry over to the family’s new operation. The Evers had no way to acquire new merchandise during the busiest toy shopping season of the year.
A bit of creative improvisation was in order. “That was the year Woolworth’s was closing downtown,” remembers Sarah. “We went there and bought stuff like play jewelry—we were practically whittling little wooden trains to sell in the store!”
Even while scrambling for stock, the Evers managed to make the holiday special for at least one bunch of customers. From Dancing Bear’s depleted inventory, Sarah had assembled enough pieces to make an oval electric train track that an Asheville family wanted to put around their tree. The buyers ran into some trouble when setting up the train; on visiting the store for help, they found a note directing them to call the Evers at home in case of emergency.
“Christmas Eve, our very first Christmas, we had to go over and help them build their electric train,” Sarah says. “It was sweet because we helped them fix it, but I don’t think we ever put a note on the door again,” she adds.
Other aspects of the family’s background offered a little more direction for their approach to toy retail. Dave and Mary, for example, used the understanding of child psychology they’d gained in their previous careers to inform Dancing Bear’s purchasing decisions. “We wanted to be able to look around the store and see something for every area of development: large motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, et cetera,” says Mary. “That’s why [the store] works, because families need all of that. It’s just sound childhood development.”
That philosophy is evident on first walking into Dancing Bear. The store is an explosion of color and toy diversity, with playthings that run the gamut of purpose and age appropriateness. Standing in the front entrance, a visitor sees a clown bop bag and bevy of bouncy balls that encourage children to practice their physical dexterity, while a collection of Mad Libs offers the chance to play in the world of words. Above them, a stuffed unicorn and sparkly brown triceratops give flight to social games. Even higher, a “ninja line,” with hanging gymnastic rings and monkey bar grips, beckons an exploration of large motor abilities.
Erika’s education is in political science, which recently found expression in some of the store’s programming for youngsters. After the 2016 elections, she and Sarah brainstormed ideas to help kids discover their political voices and how to make a difference in the world. At the resulting “Social Justice League,” kids dressed up as superheroes while learning about timely topics, including systemic racism, running for office, and protecting natural resources.
Worlds of imagination
As suggested by the Social Justice League, the Evers see Dancing Bear as more than just a toy store: Their vision is for the shop to serve as a resource for the community. The entrance of the building hosts a bulletin board peppered with flyers for children’s activities, such as karate lessons and escape rooms, while a “toy lending library” lets area teachers borrow new toys for the classroom before committing to a purchase.
The core of this community outreach is the shop’s free in-store play days. “From the beginning, we’ve always offered play dates featuring toys from certain vendors or for different types of toys like trains,” explains Erika. But the store’s move to a larger location, combined with a staff she describes as “very theatrical,” means that Dancing Bear has gotten more ambitious with its offerings in recent years.
At a recent Harry Potter–themed play date, Erika and Sarah transformed Dancing Bear into their own Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. “We tried to decorate the store and make it as real as possible. We had signs outside for the Whomping Willow and Azkaban, a sorting hat, Professor Snape playing with different types of slime,” describes Sarah. “All the staff dressed as different characters from Harry Potter—Sarah and I were Ollivander’s shop, so kids got to choose their wands. Which were literally sticks that we pulled out of our yard,” Erika adds.
The wands may have been plain twigs, but for the kids at Dancing Bear, the magic was real. “We just acted like they were the most exciting sticks ever, and the kids ate it up,” says Erika, before she intones “Pick your wand” in her best mysterious stage whisper. Adds Sarah, “We’d talk about whatever unicorn heartstring was in the wand and how to use it best. The kids will go there with you.”
The family describes a similar dynamic at work for the store’s ever-popular Star Wars play day. “Some of the kids come in these elaborate costumes, and they’ll have an elaborate lightsaber that lights up and makes the sounds,” observes Mary. “But when we help other kids make their own by decorating cardboard tubes, they’ll put down their fancy one and go, ‘I want your lightsaber!’”
Those implements of Jedi justice come in handy for the main event of the day: a showdown with the villainous Darth Vader. “The whole premise is that we’ve asked the kids to come in and go through Jedi training because Darth Vader is coming to take over the toy store. They have to help us fight him off, and they take it really seriously,” Erika says. Some lose themselves entirely to imagination, as Dave describes with a wry grin: “They’re supposed to stay in their circle when they’re not fighting Darth Vader, but every time somebody else would start, this one little boy would come around and attack from the back.”
All of Dancing Bear’s flights of fancy take place in the analog world, without recourse to the tablets and phones that have become the constant companions of many children. The Evers stick to a screen-free philosophy in their programming and product mix, and from early in their business, they’ve hosted events in conjunction with the national nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“It’s not that TV is bad per se, but there needs to be a balance. Kids need to unplug,” clarifies Erika. Dancing Bear encourages that balance through its annual Screen Free Week, which offers daily play dates to keep young minds off of technology and gift cards as a reward for those who successfully complete the challenge. It’s good fun, but also serious business; Sarah holds her hands over her eyes as she mimes a child avoiding inadvertent exposure to a TV screen.
While many kids moan at the start of the week, Sarah says that they usually come around to the advantages of time away from tech. “We always ask what they did instead of watching TV, and every year they say they had the greatest week. ‘I went out and walked, I read a book, I played games’—I think they all see the benefit. I’m hopeful that they have a conversation with their parents of limiting how much time they spend doing the screen thing because they had so much fun.”
Along the cutting edge
When it comes to managing and marketing the business, however, the Evers have not shied away from embracing technological innovation. After adding the second store on Hendersonville’s Main Street in 1997—in that space previously was another toy store, Dr. B’s—Dancing Bear moved to a computerized inventory control system that united sales and transfers for both locations. Mary says that although the system had a steep learning curve at first, it now allows the family to allocate toys between its stores more effectively.
“During the Christmas season, the Asheville store takes off way ahead of Hendersonville, so we start moving inventory. It’s like we have an entire other back stock,” Mary explains. “We can print out a report that tells us what we’ve sold and what we have on hand, so we can keep toys stocked on the floor where they’re selling.”
Dancing Bear also operates an online storefront through Specialty Toys Network, a company that creates custom websites for small toy retailers across the country. The firm maintains a database of toys pre-stocked with images, product descriptions, and UPCs; the Evers just have to pick the products they want to feature. This approach helps them capture a large seller’s economy of scale without being big themselves; as Sarah puts it, regarding the arrangement, “It’s a little cheater way for us to have a website that looks like we do all of this work.”
Online sales make up a small fraction of Dancing Bear’s business, but Sarah says the web presence helps the store stay in the minds of people who live outside of Western North Carolina. Many customers encounter the shop while on vacation, particularly the Hendersonville location, which lies off the busy Interstate 26 route to Asheville from Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. After buying a fidget spinner or travel bingo card for the road, these shoppers might decide to buy a Christmas gift or two from the website when the season rolls around.
The Evers make additional contact with their customers through a paper catalog, again taking advantage of the collective buying power of small retailers. Dancing Bear contracts with a company called The Good Toy Group, which customizes its catalog using the store’s name and coupons. “We sent out 10,000 catalogs to customers around here, and they look all flashy and high-tech,” says Sarah. “But we couldn’t have made it for the price that [The Good Toy Group] made it because they send it to many different toy stores.”
One unfortunate casualty of Dancing Bear’s growth has been the postcards the Evers once distributed every year to the store’s birthday club. While members can still come in on their birthdays for a discount and free pick from the birthday toy box—featuring items like fake doggie doo, flower temporary tattoos, and a Dalek figurine from Doctor Who—they now receive an email instead of a paper notification. “It was sad to let the mail thing go, but when you’re sending out thousands of postcards and only getting a couple hundred back, it’s just not sustainable,” Sarah laments.
The perfect toy
What hasn’t changed over the years is Dancing Bear’s commitment to personal attention. When asked about the recent bankruptcy of Toys “R” Us, Sarah is quick to point to customer service as the reason for the large retailer’s woes. “In our experience, for toys, you have to have a one-on-one experience with the customer,” she explains. “The biggest complaint I hear from customers is that they go to a big-box store and no one’s there to help them with anything; everything’s too tall and hard to reach, so they get frustrated and give up.”
In contrast, Dancing Bear familiarizes all of its employees with all the areas of the store. The Evers recently wrote an employee manual to help codify their service approach when hiring new staff. “We can tell everybody how we do it, why we do it that way, and ask them to be on board with our program,” says Sarah. That rigorous training isn’t for everyone (Dave: “A lot of folks are real surprised that you just don’t play in a toy store.”), but the family takes pride in accordingly compensating those who stay for their commitment.
The shared expertise among the staff helps Dancing Bear meet challenging requests. “People come in at Christmas time with [lists for] 10 grandkids from all over the country, and they want help with choosing and shipping and the whole nine yards,” describes Mary. But she finds her greatest joy in the quieter moments of service. “One of the most satisfying times is when somebody comes in with a special-needs child, and we’re able to match the perfect toy to that specific person.”
The store also features numerous demo areas, such as the Hooters-remnant toy bar, where children can see or try out their toys before buying them. “It’s always been an experience. We have single parents or grandparents that come and spend an hour or two playing with their kids,” says Mary. The Hendersonville location even features an old-fashioned window display, complete with a giant stuffed dinosaur and a rotating K’Nex Ferris wheel.
Of course, even the Evers’ gracious customer service is tested at times. “My favorite return story is the kite someone brought back because it would ‘only fly to the left,’” Mary says with amused disbelief. “We actually took that as a return!”
Playing for keeps
After nearly 25 years in business, the Evers family has started to reap the rewards of Dancing Bear’s success. The whole clan recently took a cruise on the River Seine from Paris to the beaches of Normandy, and Erika and Sarah spent three weeks last summer on an African safari. Previously, the family went to Egypt, where they rode camels and visited the Great Pyramids.
They’ve had to plan those vacations carefully, as Erika explains: “Both stores are open seven days a week, and when people are usually taking off, that’s when we’re the busiest. When everybody else is settling down warming chestnuts by the fire at Christmas, we’re here wrapping presents. It’s challenging for the family.”
But Christmas also gives the four Evers an opportunity to recommit themselves to their work. “Every year we gather the four of us around a table, and we ask each one whether this is something they want to do for another year,” says Mary. “People usually don’t get a job for life anymore.”
So far, the family has kept together in their upside-down approach to the business of toys. Both Erika and Sarah say they’re unlikely to return to the fields in which they trained. They say that the work offers a variety and challenge few other jobs can match, as well as unparalleled opportunity to let their creativity run free.
Sarah summarizes the appeal as she recalls the Harry Potter play date. “At the end of the day, I turned to Erika and said, ‘We just gave away sticks to kids all day!’” she exclaims. “Who else gets to do that as their job?”
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