By her own admission, Shelley Steinberg has had a mostly fun career.
That’s because she founded and owned Graham’s, a popular children’s salon and toy boutique in Greenwich, and is now general manager of Camp, an “experiential” toy store and play space in Norwalk’s SoNo Collection.
The concept is relatively simple.
Children can let their imaginations run wild through the 10,000-square-foot store’s creative design — currently centered around a world travel motif — and try out the latest toys, while their adult companions can enjoy some coffee and, it is hoped, open their wallets.
“This is the perfect combination of product and play,” Steinberg said at the store. “It’s something you don’t normally see at other toy stores, where finding someone who knows anything about the products is like going to Home Depot. If you find somebody who knows anything, you want to hang on to them!”
One of the exceptions to that general rule was Graham’s. Named for Steinberg’s son, the store began as a place for the younger set to get a haircut.
“Eventually we started to bring some toys in and it became very clear very quickly that they were equally, if not more, important than the haircut,” she said. “We did it for almost 14 years, which is a pretty good run for a mom-and-pop store.”
After Graham’s had run its course, Steinberg worked as a sales consultant for Tegu, the magnetic wooden building block manufacturer in New York City until her son “became completely obsessed” with Ben Kaufman, who with his wife Nikki, created Camp. Kaufman also created the inventor marketplace Quirky and was chief marketing officer at BuzzFeed before stepping down in August to focus on Camp.
Steinberg said she was impressed with Camp’s 5th Avenue store in Manhattan but couldn’t imagine continuing to commute into the city, initially misreading the store’s announcement that it was opening in SoNo as Soho, the neighborhood in lower Manhattan.
“When I realized where it really was, I wanted the job so badly,” Steinberg laughed. “I joined on Oct. 15, just in time for our opening two weeks ago. I made it through the end of construction and I still have the dust on my shoes to prove it.”
Camp is meant to evoke memories of sleep-away and day camps. Visitors first encounter a Camp Canteen general store and then are directed through a “magic door” that leads to an interactive space for play and shopping, as well as a “Campitheatre” featuring various activities and programming. Those are offered four times a day on weekends and two or three times during the week, depending on demand.
Via the current Travel Camp theme, visitors first walk through a fog curtain to enter “London,” where they can have some tea and enter a red telephone box for a quick chat with the Queen before proceeding to such sites as Paris, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica and go on a Kenyan safari. A partnership with the Florida Tourism Board means that some of the Sunshine State’s attractions are also featured.
Steinberg said the store’s theme will change at least three times a year to further encourage return visits.
“We want people to come back,” she said, “and business has been literally mind-blowing so far. Within the first six days I lost count of how many people said they were already back for the fourth or fifth time.”
Camp has roughly 40 staffers, all of whom are educated about each of the store’s products, Steinberg said. No Home Depot hopelessness allowed.
That Norwalk was chosen as Camp’s first Connecticut location — in addition to 5th Avenue it also has operations in Hudson Yards, Brooklyn and Dallas — was a very deliberate decision, she said.
“This is really the middle of Fairfield County with very easy access off of I-95,” she said. “And we’re the only true toy store experience in the mall as well, which is a great advantage to have.”
Also in Camp’s favor is the proximity of Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children, Steinberg said.
“There are tons of families in Fairfield County, but not necessarily a lot of things for those families to do,” she said. “We keep it fresh here and believe that being so close to those other family-friendly attractions helps.”