Planes, trains & automobiles—kid-sized and green
Chico Toys makes Black Friday green by offering environmentally friendly, locally made heirloom toys for the holidays
Dominic and Monica Bell relaxed on the couch in Dominic Bell’s north Chico living room, their eyes toward the entertainment center. But the television was off. They were looking at the top of the TV, lined with dozens of their handmade wooden toys: airplanes, tractors, boats and cars; baby rattles and teethers shaped like whales and bunnies; and a Ferris wheel with removable wooden people.
For the last year, the father-daughter duo have been making children’s toys from reclaimed hardwood scraps, and selling them locally as Chico Toys. Dominic had been getting the tiny scraps of mahogany, oak, maple and walnut from his neighbor two doors down, local wood artisan Bob Mabrey. Mabrey buys most of his exotic woods as “fallout” pieces—large scrap pieces—which he uses to build artistic cutting boards. If the pieces got too small to use, he passed them along to Dominic.
“It was surplus scrap, and I was burning it. And I thought, ‘Gee, what a waste,’” said Dominic. Then, last November, said 24-year-old Monica, “We started making a toy for my boyfriend’s son, and we said, ‘Well, that was really fun.’” The pair soon began making more toys, mostly from their neighbor’s wood scraps, and Chico Toys was born.
“It’s wood that would’ve been thrown away and burned. Now it’s going to last for years and years in kids’ hands,” Dominic said. Chico Toys started out with five designs. Now it offers 30 toy designs, which are only available locally at Made in Chico, Eco in Chico, and Eco in Paradise.
“If I didn’t get [most of] the materials for free, I wouldn’t be able to sell anything,” offered Dominic, as he would have to price the toys too high for the average consumer to afford. The Bells’ toys range in price from $7 (a Micro-Machines-sized wooden car) to $49 (a horse on wheels). “We don’t really make a lot [of profit]. But it’s fun. The thing that I like the most is that people like the toys.”
Made in Chico store manager Amy Anderson finds the toys highly appealing to her customers, with “that kind of heirloom look and feel … that pulls heartstrings,” she said. The popular store, located on Third Street in downtown Chico, features 300 local artists’ or businesses’ artworks and products. Anderson estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of the artists are like Dominic and Mabrey—retired or partially retired people who need to “get rid of that little creative bug we have inside of us.”
Made in Chico is already ramping up for the holidays, and the store is decorated with brightly lit Christmas trees. With Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving—as a reminder of shoppers’ tendencies to head to malls and Walmart for holiday shopping, Anderson is confident that Chico Toys will encourage folks to keep it local.
“It’s a great way to step away from the big-box stores and support the local artists who in turn support Chico,” Anderson said.
Black Friday, the day on which retail chains across the country offer deeply discounted “door busters” and extra-early opening hours, often predicts the consumer appetite for the remainder of the holiday season. Social and environmental activists have responded to the conspicuous-consumption holiday with Buy Nothing Day, which asks consumers to hold off spending anything on Black Friday. Originally dreamed up by Canadian visual artist and social activist Ted Dave in 1997, it was quickly embraced by Adbusters, the anti-consumerist organization that publishes the advertisement-free magazine of the same name. (The group is also credited for the original call to action that created the Occupy Wall Street movement earlier this year.)
“With catastrophic climate change looming, we the rich 1 billion people on the planet have to consume less!” declares the Adbusters Buy Nothing Day campaign website (www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd). The campaign encourages consumers to skip the “temptations of our five-planet lifestyles,” referring to the number of Earths we would need in order to supply enough natural resources to sustain our current American consumption patterns.
But Adbusters recognizes that all-or-nothing won’t work for some Americans, saying “if that’s too extreme for grandma and the kids, try for a Buy Less Christmas. And maybe a buy local, buy fairer, buy indie Christmas.”
The latter concept reconfigured for our town—that Chicoans choose Chico-made products at local stores for holiday gifts—is what businesses like Made in Chico are promoting, through Buy Local Day, which is the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The concept, picked up in the last few years by local business networks and cities across the country, promotes the social and environmental benefits of spending dollars on local products, in local stores.
And the environmental impact of a Chico Toys product over a Chinese-made plastic toy from a box store is significant: No packaging to throw out; absolutely minimal transportation emissions, as most of the materials are sourced from two doors down and the final products are only sold in town; and using mostly reclaimed materials means virtually no extra energy went into the making of the product. Plus, the product never needs a change of batteries and is designed to be an heirloom, enjoyed by generations, not tossed when the plastic cracks.
Monica supports the concept of Buy Local Day (also called Small Business Saturday), which she first learned about from a flier she spotted in Made in Chico. She admits a strong preference for a homemade gift over a store-bought item. But, if consumers must consume, then buying local is a must, she argues, as it “invests in the vibrancy of our community the way big-box stores aren’t [doing].
“Honing a craft, making something with your hands, is pretty rare. Although there are a lot of jobs created by the big-box stores, there aren’t a lot of skills created,” she said. “There’s no reason that a holiday that’s about the spirit of love and generosity … has to put a huge toll on our environment and add a whole bunch of stuff in the landfill.”