Submitted by Columbia Basin Trust
The trucks are wheel-deep in mud and splattered from bumpers to rooftops. On this blue-sky day, they’ve been busy getting stuck in muck, zooming across sand and navigating around rocks nearly as big as they are. Which is not very big—as these are foot-long, remote-control vehicles. It’s spring 2021 and people are gathered for a fun day at Trail’s Gyro Park, enjoying a hobby that’s particularly near and dear to one city resident: Evan Johnston, owner of Island Toys & Hobbies.
In fall 2020—in the midst of the global pandemic—Johnston opened his downtown store. Here, aficionados and newbies alike can buy items like remote-control cars, trucks and planes; model motorcycles and rockets; and the paints and glues and parts that go with them.
During the pandemic, many businesses have stayed afloat by going increasingly online. In Johnston’s case, he found success by doing the opposite—and Columbia Basin Trust’s Basin Business Advisors (BBA) program was there to help.
The appeal of retail
“It was actually really good timing,” says Johnston, referring to opening a brick-and-mortar location despite the challenging times. With so many people at home, trying to stay busy, “Hobby items took a huge uptick.”
The business had been online for years. Originally, Johnston had a contract from big box stores to receive their returned or damaged toys and hobby items, which he then fixed, repackaged and sold online. Which is why he named the business “Island,” referring to Christmas story of the Island of Misfit Toys.
When that contract ended, he had a hard time finding a new supply. “I was actually about to close down,” he says.
By chance, he learned about an empty location in downtown Trail. “They agreed to give me this place for a really, really reasonable rent in exchange for some renovations, which I’m really good at. I decided to give it a second go.”
While he would still upcycle items, his new focus would be on brand new stock. And his tactic would change from online sales to face-to-face ones.
Then the pandemic hit—after he’d already signed the year-long lease. “I couldn’t really turn back at that point. So, I kind of just dived in.”
You’ve got mail
However, with no experience running a retail store, Johnston needed help. “I’m great at winging things, but there’s only so far you can wing something.”
The Basin Business Advisors program provides free, one-to-one, confidential business counselling and assessment services. Delivered by Community Futures Central Kootenay on behalf of the Trust, the program provides advice and tools so that entrepreneurs can make informed decisions based on their unique situations, resources and visions—whether the challenge involves managing staff, streamlining operations or planning for succession.
Johnston benefited in several ways. He learned how to make cash flow projections. He analyzed his market. He implemented a point-of-sale system. “The biggest thing I had issues with was advertising,” he says. “It’s not my thing.”
Together, he and the advisor decided he should print postcards and stick them in the mail—the traditional way. “It worked really well.”
With Christmas coming up, customers flocked to the new Island Toys & Hobbies. “People in this town were really excited about a hobby shop,” Johnston says. “I’ve been doing quite well.”
Full throttle ahead
Now, the store stocks about 100 times more items than it started with. Johnston remains the only staff, although one man helps with repairs in exchange for discounts. Johnston enjoys the personal interactions much more than he liked the online ones.
“They can come. You can talk to them about the item. You can give them all the information they need before they buy it. You can help them out afterwards. It’s day and night and so much easier.”
He thanks BBA for its aid. “The advertising that I did in the beginning really helped to get my name out there early on,” he says. “I don’t think I would have failed, but I think I wouldn’t have been nearly as far ahead as I am right now.”
And will the enthusiasm for remote-control vehicles and similar pastimes die down when the pandemic is done? “Now that they’ve gotten to get back into their hobbies a little bit, I can’t see them getting out of them anytime soon,” he says. A lot of people have re-ignited their passions or found them for the first time.
This hobby—and owning a hobby shop—can be a rocky, muddy route. But that’s all the fun.