Written by Jason Gilmer | Photos by Anthony Harden
“I’m a funny guy and I have a funny hat”: John Taylor,
of O.P. Taylor’s toy store, knows what makes the kids happy.
“It’s sort of cocky, but, Oh Susanna’s was, like, legendary,” Taylor says. “And I told Susie, my wife, I said, ‘I’m gonna make O.P. Taylor’s as legendary as Oh Susanna’s or better.’
“And she goes, ‘Well, good luck with that.’”
Luck might have had a hand in the success of O.P. Taylor’s, but that isn’t everything. Taylor turned his toy store into a chaotic wonderland that lights up a child’s eyes and worries a parent about their credit card limit.
The store hasn’t just become a Brevard shopping destination, a place to find small items to fill Christmas stockings or to purchase the present that serves as a birthday party’s centerpiece. In all honestly, it’s become more. Like Hooker Falls in nearby DuPont Forest or Potters’ Row on Highway 276, the 6,000-sq.-ft., two-story toy shop has become a place to which people plan drives. It’s a place that feels nostalgic at one moment and fresh and new at another as you walk around the corner and see a new toy.
“It was well received (to start). We had a lot of local support,” Taylor says as he stands near the entrance of his store, wearing his trademark cap with its beaded propeller on the top. “But I don’t think we became a destination until about seven or eight years ago. In 2000, I guess, would probably be the pivoting point when Southern Living said we were the number one toy store in the South. They did like a five-page spread on us and also featured a store in Mississippi called Miner’s Doll and Toy Store.”
“People return year after year to take their kids and grandkids shopping there,” The Transylvania Times’ co-publisher Sean Trapp says. “There’s always cool, colorful displays in the windows, and happy kids streaming out the front door. And we’re lucky enough to have it in the center of Brevard, right across from the courthouse.”
More accolades have been heaped on the store, which has grown from its Brevard roots to include stores in Asheville and Greenville, South Carolina, with USA Today naming it one of the top ten toy stores in the world. Recently, Taylor was on the cover of three trade magazines in the same month, including a magazine from Japan. (Taylor has no idea what is said about him and his store on those pages.)
Not bad, seeing as how O.P. Taylor’s began from a clothing store that introduced toys simply as a way to keep children occupied while parents shopped and tried on sweaters or slacks in the dressing room.
From Turtlenecks to Toys
The moment that Taylor knew his clothing store, called O.P. Taylor’s Mercantile, needed some fun-filled distractions was when a toddler slipped under a dressing room door and a frantic mother, clad only in her unmentionables, raced after the child.
Taylor’s clothing store, located in the same Main Street building as the current toy store, sold items by Northern Isles, Patagonia, Columbia, and Woolrich, along with canoes, backpacks, and pop-up tents. It was a typical outdoorsy store that was perfectly suited for an outdoorsy town.
Kids running through the store—or away from their parents—was an obstacle that could easily be remedied, thought Taylor. He just needed a train table.
He drove to Atlanta and found the Brio distributor there and asked to purchase a train table for his store. You can’t, he was told, as only dealers of Brio toys could get the table. Taylor asked about the minimum number of toys he’d need to purchase to become a Brio dealer and was told $5,000.
“How long have you been in the toy business?” Taylor
“Counting today? One,” he responded.
It wasn’t enough that Taylor would, on a whim, become a Brio Toys dealer and fork over the money to get started—the distributor needed to see his store.
“But it’s a clothing store,” the distributor said when he visited Brevard.
“It’s gonna be a toy store someday,” Taylor replied.
In 1993 the store on the corner of Main Street in Brevard—once home to Ward’s Newsstand, Hallelujah Health Food, and a bank of lawyers’ offices upstairs, each with a fireplace—would become the first O.P. Taylor’s.
Today the rooms are full and, honestly, that’s an understatement. What you won’t see, though, are Xbox or Nintendo Switch game consoles. This store is about imagination.
“Our big claim to fame is ‘no batteries required,’” Taylors says. “There’s some exceptions with our remote-control department. We do sell airplanes, boats, quadcopters, cars, and trucks that are all entry-level hobby items, maybe a cut above a toy because they’re actually hobby-grade materials, but they’re entry-level prices. The idea of sitting in front of a TV and watching video graphics of stuff just doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
The room on the right side of the store, the same space where Mrs. Bessie Ward would count penny candy in small paper bags, now has a wall of Legos. The popular toy, with its collections of Marvel, Ninjago, Star Wars, and other types of interlocking bricks, is the top seller at the Brevard location.
There’s an electric race car track in the middle of the space where kids can place cars on the track, grab a controller, and make the cars zoom around the figure-eight course. Collectibles are in cases. A drivable car in the back corner.
The room on the left is similarly jammed with the items on most kids’ Christmas lists. In the back there are puzzles and board games and a display of plush white squirrels. There’s an entire spot dedicated to PlayMobil toys such as the Ghostbuster, Spirit Riding Free, and dinosaur collections.
“I think the thing that makes us successful in one respect, not only attitude, but the fact that if we commit to a brand, we carry the whole brand, like Lego,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing we don’t have that’s currently available. If the kid comes in with a PlayMobil magazine and says, ‘I want that’, we have it.”
The store isn’t just about fun. While Legos may teach dexterity and how to follow instructions, there are even more educational tools. The advance of STEM programs in schools have brought in families looking for those types of toys that mix engineering and math, and the store has a section of arts and crafts and a selection of books.
“John has been a critical part of the revitalization of Brevard, not only at O.P. Taylor’s, but back when he had Oh Susanna’s restaurant,” said John Nichols, a downtown Brevard developer and president of The Nichols Company. “My kids constantly beg to go downtown to walk around the store. It is one of the most unusual toy stores that exists today. Floor to ceiling toys never get old with the kids… The reputation of OP Taylor’s has spread far and wide so that everyone who comes to visit us always wants to go to the store at least once.”
From the Shore to the Mountains
As a small child Taylor would live the warm months in Rhode Island and the cooler months in Sarasota, Florida. His parents were hoteliers in Misquamicut, Rhode Island, which is south of Provence and north of Mystic, Connecticut, and is where many New Yorkers would come for the weekend to get away at the beach.
“It was a great way to grow up,” Taylor said. “I mean, we didn’t always think so, because it was like, ‘Hey, take towels down to Room 24.’”
The hotel was finally sold and the family moved full-time to Sarasota, where Taylor’s father would excel as a realtor. The Siesta Key area, once a hidden gem, became known when Life magazine writer Loudon Wainwright, Taylor’s cousin, wrote a story proclaiming the beach to be the best in the world.
In 1965 Taylor was sent to Camp Greenville, the South Carolina summer camp experience on Cedar Mountain, and known to many for the Fred W. Symmes Chapel, more popularly known as “Pretty Place.” “My first letter home was, ‘If you don’t come and get me, I’m walking back to Florida,’” recalls Taylor. “My second letter home was, ‘Can we stay the rest of the summer?’”
Taylor, who enthusiastically attended Camp Greenville from 1965 to 1970, took the bus to get there from Florida a few times until his parents also fell in love with the mountains and would rent a spot during the summer. Ultimately, Taylor’s love for the area led him to move to Brevard in 1982: “My girlfriend at the time, who was a swimsuit model and a paramedic, decided it would be really brilliant to come to Brevard and open a restaurant. We had an idea for a restaurant, but it wouldn’t work in Sarasota. It would get swallowed up in all the hubbub down there. But Brevard really needed a restaurant.”
Soon, Oh Susanna’s became a popular staple in downtown Brevard. The plan was to open the restaurant each day, work a few hours, then play golf or tennis. Instead, the business took off. They baked bread in number ten food cans, made their own sauces, and developed a strong following.
“We did soup, salads, and sandwiches at lunch, and all the sandwiches were named after Stephen Foster songs,” Taylor says. “So, you get a Suwanee River, which was a tuna sandwich, or a Camptown Grinder, which was a guinea grinder, they used to call them. We did the Beautiful Dreamer, which was everybody’s favorite—and I don’t know why, because it was just ham, turkey, cucumbers, and Swiss cheese.”
“Oh Susanna’s was incredible,” The Transylvania Times’ Trapp says, “especially when you consider that we’re talking about the ‘80s, before we had so many great restaurants in Brevard. Those of us who grew up eating there still miss it. Thirty years later, I remember my two favorite sandwiches: the JT Special and the Chicken Cordon Bleu. The latter, which, if memory serves me right, was a hot sandwich with chicken salad, deli ham, and melted Swiss, was phenomenal.”
The Taylors ran the restaurant for ten years until someone came in and asked to buy the business. Taylor notes that he had purchased the building for $35,000, but sold it for $1 million. He also purchased other buildings, including the building where O.P. Taylor’s is now located, which he says he paid $100,000 for in 1987. Meanwhile, after the restaurant, he restored cars and he also owned a bowling alley for a short time. Taylor now owns part of Brevard’s WSQL radio station (102 FM or 1240 AM) and other real estate properties.
“Every small town needs creative entrepreneurs like John Taylor,” says Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce and Transylvania County Tourism (TCTI). “He has established a number of new businesses in our community over the last four decades, with O.P. Taylor’s as his masterpiece. Having one of our main downtown corners occupied by a business that stands out as a vibrant and fun location is meaningful, particularly in a small town.”
From One To Three
As Taylor’s toy business bloomed, the idea of having more than one location wasn’t exactly on his mind until someone asked him to consider a second spot. He was courted by Waynesville to open a spot there, and it lasted five years, with growing success, before Taylor decided to move in 2002 to downtown Greenville, South Carolina, due to a rent increase.
“I leased a building in Greenville, picked the Waynesville store up, drove to the Greenville, dropped it in, and went from a $300,000 store to a million-dollar store overnight,” Taylor says.
Downtown Greenville has boomed in the last 20 years, and while the Greenville O.P. Taylor’s is the smallest of its three location, its business has boomed right along with the city. A third location opened in 2010 in Biltmore Park in Asheville; it has become visually iconic to shoppers there thanks to the giant, red uniform-attired toy soldiers guarding the entrance.
These days Taylor has 43 employees, with most of them part-timers who help children locate the perfect gift for a schoolmate or the toy that will make them hand off their allowance. (Taylor: “It’s a fun place to work!”) With Toys“R”Us now extinct and toy stores in malls also dying out, parents have looked for other avenues to purchase items for their kids. Yes, there are online retailers and big box stores such as Wal-Mart or Target that have some items, but finding the number of options that O.P. Taylor’s has is tough to do.
“I hear more and more, ‘We used to love to take the kids to Toys“R”Us, but there’s no Toys“R”Us anymore—there’s no toy stores anymore,’” Taylor says. “No offense to Barnes & Noble, but that’s not the first place I’m going now to sit down and play with my kid and toys. So, yeah, it’s helping out (financially). In the last two months, every weekend has been at least double what we did last year, and last year was a really good year.”
Taylor is frequently found at the Brevard store, and the town’s mayor, Jimmy Harris, is clearly happy with O.P. Taylor’s presence, saying, “John is a great merchant who the City of Brevard greatly appreciates. He is very successful and intuitive to the needs of his customer.” Taylor also regularly visits the other locations—he’s easy to spot in his propeller cap. He says he saw a similar cap when he visited the famed FAO Schwartz toy store in New York City years ago and bought one on the spot. The reaction he received, from airline attendants to small kids alike, on his way back to North Carolina convinced him that such a cap would be perfect for his store: “This could be a good gimmick,” he thought.
On the label was the cap’s manufacturer and a phone number. Taylor called. He’s worn one every day since.
“It’s part of the shtick,” he laughs. “And I’m approachable. Kids think I’m harmless, and a lot of them point and say, ‘You have a propeller on your head!’ Instead of a creepy old man, I’m a funny guy and I have a funny hat.”
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