Rob Heist of Park Hills jokes that close friends always say he stands out as the guy with the guts to try things they might be reluctant to attempt.
A good example of that was evident July 1, when Heist opened a kiosk in the Florence Mall at the urging of his 13-year-old son, Hayden. The teen convinced his father they could make some money selling toys in the mall, where the only toy-related business is the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
No market research. No business plan. No MBA from Harvard.
Just Heist’s willingness to try something new, which also was demonstrated by the 47-year-old’s decision two years ago to resign as installation manager for a heating, air-conditioning and plumbing firm in Northern Kentucky and return to the classroom at Cincinnati State to study occupational therapy.
The genesis of the toy kiosk dates back about six months to January, when Heist said he and his son were gift shopping at the mall, and Hayden spotted a kiosk in one of the broad corridors that link the stores together.
“We passed a kiosk that was selling sunglasses or something like that, and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could sell kendamas someplace like this?’” Heist recalled of that January shopping trip.
For the uninitiated, a kendama is a wooden skill toy that has its origins in Japan. The toy has a gavel-shaped head and handle with three shallow cups and a pointed spike. The handle is connected by a string to a ball that has a hole in it. The game is played by juggling the ball from one cup to another or spiking it on the handle.
Kendama USA, which is headquartered in Smyrna, Georgia, and sells the toys for upwards of about $25 each, contends that a kendama will strengthen hand-eye coordination, balance and reflexes.
Hayden, who will be entering the eighth grade at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Burlington in the fall, doesn’t need any convincing. Heist said his son is addicted to the game and has agreed to help out with the kiosk.
Hayden also is an acquaintance of Jake Fischer of Ft. Wright, a world-class player who is sponsored by Kendama Co., of Denver, the company that will supply the toy to Heist’s kiosk. Fischer was one of the players who represented the company a year ago when he competed for the Kendama World Cup in Japan and finished seventh out of about 250 competitors.
Fischer, 18, who will enter the University of Kentucky in the fall, was demonstrating some kendama tricks Friday when Heist and his son opened for business. Fischer said he will return to Japan and the world competition later this month.
Although it is thought that kendama has been played in Japan for more than 200 years, it doesn’t qualify as a “classic” toy in the United States, where it began to gain popularity about 10 years ago.
But in another sense, it’s a classic because it’s fabricated out of wood and doesn’t need a battery, AC power or Wi-Fi to operate.
“I was always a toy guy,” Heist said, adding that he decided to create an inventory that included a lot of the toys that he recalls from his childhood – tops, yo-yos, Rubik’s Cubes and Slinkys.
“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent trying to unknot my Slinky,” he said.
Heist said he’s promoting the kiosk as a place to buy “toys from today and from yesterday.” Besides kendama, Heist’s HR Novelties kiosk on the first floor at center court also offers the game Jenga and supplies for hobbyists who want to weave bracelets, necklaces and belts out of parachute cord.
The Toy Industry Association, a New York-based trade group that celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, did not have any information readily available about the popularity of classics toys like those Heist is selling. But the trade group is well aware of the continuing appeal of some toys whose roots are generations deep in the U.S.
“There are a ton of classic toys that today’s parents and grandparents remember fondly from their childhoods and are excited to share with the children in their lives,” the association said in one of its “trend reports,” according to Melissa Fogarty Winston, a representative for the organization. “These toys are terrific for families to bond over and foster intergenerational play. In addition to re-releases and refreshed toys, there are also a lot of fun classic, retro toys that are available for families.
“These back-to-basics toys (mostly low-tech) are perfect for when families want to 'switch off' from technology,” she said. “The classic play patterns remain the same, and just as popular over time.”
Heist didn’t sound like he was at all apprehensive about making the investment in a mall lease and an inventory of toys and craft supplies. “My family has always been very entrepreneurial,” Heist said, explaining that members of his immediate family have been involved in three small businesses in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
He also pointed out that he will have pretty much of an exclusive on kendamas in the mall. If they choose to, anchor stores could sell the product, but other merchants can’t offer them for sale, Heist said.
If Heist and his son are lucky, Macy’s won’t open a Kendama Boutique anytime soon.