October 11, 2017
Warrenton toy store celebrates 30th anniversary
Photo/Don Del Rosso
Elna McMann’s store in Oak Springs Plaza occupies 4,000 square feet — four times its original size.
Everybody told me it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be possible in this community to have a specialty, high-end store. The interest wouldn’t be there. And I just didn’t believe them.
— g. whillikers owner Elna McMann
Toy, game and book store
Oak Springs Plaza, 41 W. Lee Highway, Warrenton
9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
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By the Numbers
Estimated toys, games, puzzles, books and other items g. whillikers has in its inventory.
Books the store sold last year
Plush stuffed animals sold
Lego sets sold
Rubik's Cubes sold
Three things convinced her to open a top-notch toy store in Warrenton.
Elna McMann believed that likeminded parents wanted high-quality toys and developmentally-stimulating games, puzzles and books unavailable at big chain retailers.
Mrs. McMann also knew her family eventually would need a second income to cover their sons’ college educations.
“And, I just loved children,” she adds.
Primarily for those reasons, Mrs. McMann 30 years ago opened g. whillikers.
“Everybody told me it wouldn’t work,” recalls the 71-year-old businesswoman. “It wouldn’t be possible in this community to have a specialty, high-end store. The interest wouldn’t be there. And I just didn’t believe them.”
Testifying to g. whillikers’ early success, Mrs. McMann twice outgrew spaces at the Warrenton Village Center, before moving the shop to nearby Oak Springs Plaza.
Her experience as a preschool teacher and public school volunteer left little doubt in her mind that a store such as g. whillikers would succeed.
“I knew that there were enough of us out here that had the same theory, that there were enough people that cared enough about what their children and grandchildren were learning and what they were doing.”
Fully stocking the original 1,000-square-foot store at first caused the greatest concern.
“I was very fearful that I couldn’t fill that tiny little store, that I couldn’t possibly have enough merchandise to do that,” Mrs. McMann recalls. “Now, when something comes in, the girls have to use a shoehorn to fit it in somewhere.”
By her count, the store has about 43,000 toys, games, puzzles, books and other items.
The Oak Springs Plaza store has 4,000 square feet of retail space. Mrs. McMann moved the store — named after a beloved grandfather who used the expression “Gee, whillikers” — in 1997.
From the day it opened, the store has remained faithful to its mission — providing high-quality products, mixing tried-and-true toys and play sets and offering variations on things as basic as blocks or a technology twist on traditional games, Mrs. McMann says.
“I still find value in a jigsaw puzzle, in a simple brain-teaser, like Rubik’s Cube, or games where we’re getting people to talk to each other.”
But the toy market landscape has changed because of technology, the way young people use it and the speed at which they learn about the world, Mrs. McMann explains.
“Society changes with technology,” she says. “Kids are getting older at a younger age, and so I think that affects things. It affects how I buy.”
For example, before the technology boom, Mrs. McMann bought toys for children 14 and younger. Today, she generally buys toys for children 10 and younger. That number probably will continue to drop because “kids are not given enough time to be kids,” she adds.
The store carries no video games because of cost and mostly content, toy guns or anything suggesting violence.
“You’re not going to get blood and guts in here, unless it’s in the science section on where your appendix is or something,” Mrs. McMann says.
Working with 339 vendors, she remains on the lookout for innovative products that meet her and customers’ expectations.
“Educationally, there’s a big push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Mrs. McMann says. “There are a lot of toys that people have developed that encourage learning in those areas.”
The variety and changes in the kinds of science kits on her shelves reflect that, she says.
For g. whillikers and just about every other retailer, the internet has proven perhaps the most disruptive business force in decades.
But Mrs. McMann doesn’t try to match online prices or compete for that audience.
“Our business model is based on an experience, coming into this store, wanting to drop by and play. It’s based on having someone come in say, ‘I have 7-year-old. What on earth do I get them’?”
Her well-trained staff can match the recipient with the appropriate toy, book or game, wrap the gift and carry it the customer’s car, if need be — a combination of services no online company provides, Mrs. McCann happily reports.
“We learn our products, we show our products,” says Assistant Manager Lacey Chalmers, 22. “And we know them well.”
Beth Maloney, 33, of Warrenton and her two daughters tick off a bunch of reasons why they prefer g. whillikers to other toy purveyors.
“There’s not any place where you can play with toys,” Mrs. Maloney says. “It’s hands-on. You go to Walmart, everything’s in a box.”
The store also has “unique things, and we like to buy local, for sure.”
Her family shops at g. whillikers “especially for birthdays, because they wrap,” Mrs. Maloney says. “Nobody wraps anymore.”’
“They have a lot of cool toys,” says Kyrra Frye, her 7-year-old daughter.
“They show us everything,” says Mrs. Maloney’s other daughter, 8-year-old Blakely Maloney. “They tell us about everything. This is way better than Walmart.”
Kristin Maynard, 44, teaches fourth grade at Coleman Elementary School near Marshall.
“I like to the teachers’ section,” says Mrs. Maynard, who lives near New Baltimore. “You can get what you need, without having to order from a catalogue. I know that Walmart is starting to carry some. But the quality here is so much better.”
Mrs. McMann attributes the store’s success to “a community that’s been so good to me,” a talented staff, timing and plenty of hard work.
About a dozen years ago, she had groomed an employee to buy the store. They had developed a business plan. In the end, though, that employee instead decided to start a family.
Mrs. McMann remains open to the idea of selling the business. Ideally, a new owner would share her mission and even keep her as an employee.
“I love what I do.”
And if no buyer steps forward, she eventually will shut the store.
“No one can continue forever,” says Mrs. McMann, who still works 60-hour weeks.
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LeeT · October 11, 2017 at 10:58 pm
I always stop by when I travel from Chattanooga. Mrs. McMann taught my daughter in preschool, contributed to my son's cub scout troop activities, and made wonderful suggestions for birthdays and even made choices to occupy a child in the hospital. DON'T LET g. whillikers CLOSE!!!
Thank you, Elna for helping me raise my children!
BJ · October 11, 2017 at 6:04 pm
We loved going into the store when our daughter was little. I still go in there on occasion to see what cool stuff they have on the shelves.
sherlawn1 · October 11, 2017 at 5:07 pm
I love this store. I take my child and my foster children here to pick out toys.
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