Boy and Girl – Dani Valent

This story first appeared in the , February 1, 2015.

After 50 years of playtime, toy shop Boy and Girl is closing, and its 86-year-old owner, Jim Wootton, despairs at the industry he is leaving behind.

He leans on the cluttered counter to expound, finding room between scattered wooden figurines, half a cup of cold tea and a sticky note inquiring ‘Where is Humpty Dumpty?’ Jim’s partner Robert sells a timber trolley to a young mother. Astrid (Jim’s ex-wife, and still very much part of the family) arranges cardboard theatres “just like those Winston Churchill loved”.

The shop opened in 1965 (first in South Yarra, then Hawksburn, now in High Street, Prahran) but declining trade, not advancing age, is forcing the closure. More than one loyal customer has succumbed to tears while browsing the emptying shelves, but Wootton knows many former patrons are doing their shopping at larger, more commercial stores.

He’s worried about that. “I object to the quality of most toys,” he says. “I often hear from parents of their sadness and frustration that their kids are wandering ankle deep in broken toys.”

He also dislikes the commercialisation of play. “Licensed toys seem to be totally exploitative of kids. I have an uneasy feeling that it’s all about getting children used to fitting in with the corporate world, where we buy things that are advertised and do what we’re told.”

In contrast, these toys are chosen with the child in mind, says Wootton, surveying his declining stock of games, jigsaws, dolls, evocative books and wheeled toys. “Beyond the essentials of durable and safe, I like toys to be interesting, satisfying and beautiful and to have ongoing play value so they don’t pall on the child.”

His duty of care extended to testing bath toys in the sink. “Most ducks turn over,” he explains. “Weighting them properly might cost a little more but it is more satisfying for the child.”

Wootton particularly enjoyed hunting for the unusual. In the 1970s he spied a tiny notice in an American magazine about a doll made by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler. The dolls’ expressions were neutral, letting the child lead the mood.

Wootton scoured directories at the Swiss consulate to find her address, then posted a letter. Weeks later he received a telephone call from Morgenthaler’s daughter, who happened to live in Warrandyte. “She said Mother was visiting and would I like to meet her. That was a very nice coincidence.”

So what next? “If I’m going to do anything ‘after work’ I better get on with it,” he says. Travel is on the cards.

He also hopes to find a role communicating about the importance of quality play and the ways in which marvellous toys can make daily life beautiful and satisfying.

“There is a movement to the commonplace and uniformity but I’ve been happy to be a purist,” he says. “It has been my life’s work.”


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