The Toy Chest
~story and photos by Chrissy Alspaugh
Keeping her business open while its doors were COVID-closed was not how Hilary Key planned to celebrate The Toy Chest’s 50th Anniversary.
But Hilary and her husband, Danny, have proved they are not defined by setbacks.
Through success, failure, silent struggles, and becoming parents, these masters of reinvention continue thinking outside of the toy box to bring their dreams to life.
Hilary, a 31-year-old mother of two, is in her seventh year as owner of The Toy Chest, a specialty toy store in the Artists Colony Shops complex. She and Danny also own The Allison House, an 1876 Victorian mansion that hosts up to 14 guests in the heart of Nashville. Danny also launched and serves as managing broker at Brown County Real Estate.
Here’s a little bit about how they’ve made it all work.
Question: You guys are involved in such diverse businesses. Talk about your roles outside of the toy store?
Hilary: The Toy Chest is where my heart is. I love and believe strongly in the power of play. Between having a family and a job I absolutely love, I don’t want my attention split in too many other directions.
Q: Was the pandemic your biggest challenge as a business owner?
Hilary: It has been a tumultuous seven years, so the biggest challenge is hard to pin down. I was most affected financially by the 2016 construction on SR 135. At that time, I still viewed the store’s success as subject to whatever tourism made it through my doors.
In 2017, we learned a larger company was taking over the site of our Bloomington location of The Toy
Chest, so we had 30 days to relocate. I also had roughly 30 days left in a pregnancy, so we had to make the difficult decision to close.
COVID-19 has presented challenge after challenge, but by 2020, I was ready to attack each with everything I had. Despite constant demand for creativity, difficult decisions, and very, very long hours, I felt better equipped to face COVID than some of the challenges that preceded it. I’m glad it didn’t occur earlier in my tenure.
Finally, I spent three of the past seven years battling fertility issues, so it was hard to be fully engaged mentally through those times. It’s hard to face challenges silently, so that background battle was significant.
Q: How did you keep The Toy Chest open during quarantine, when your doors were closed?
Hilary: The fact that I don’t want a new job—and neither does my amazing manager, Emily Stone— pushed the two of us to do whatever we needed to do, for however long we needed to. I couldn’t have managed it without her support, or my husband pulling more weight at home, the most dedicated returning staff I could have imagined, social media giving our new offerings visibility, and the fact that I went into the pandemic with a functioning retail website and solid knowledge of how it worked with my point-of-sale system. And I couldn’t have paid my bills without the extreme support from our customers. New customers came out of the woodwork and remain loyal today. Multiple existing customers spent thousands of dollars with us last year and are now friends. Thousands of people shared our social media posts and sent their family and friends to us. I was regularly in tears thinking about the support we were getting from our local community and the larger Toy Chest community that had been building for 50 years.
Q: The lease on your second Bloomington location of The Toy Chest was set to renew during the pandemic, and you found yourself closing again. Is that something you’ll revisit?
Hilary: At this point, I’m more focused on mobile options. I really want to buy a multi-functional vehicle to make into a play-mobile that could take play concepts or the store itself on the road. We could use it when making free deliveries (a pandemic addition that we’ll probably continue forever), to make pop-up stores for events, or load it with crafts, games, obstacle course equipment, etc. and go to a customer’s location for parties.
Q: What other dreams do you have for the store?
Hilary: Seven years ago, I had jumped into the retail world, and it was hard to think of expansion in any manner other than more retail or manufacturing. Ideas such as opening play spaces, offering courses to teach parents the importance of play, and expanding through programs pushed from our online store are what I spend more time on now. We’ll always have the Nashville store, but expansion might not mean more brick and mortar.
Q: What makes you most proud, reflecting on your time with The Toy Chest?
Hilary: The relationship we’ve built with our customers and our community. There have been moments when we have had to make tough decisions, take stands on controversial situations, and ask our customers for support. I know now that our employees are a very strong unit and that our customers are here for us, believe in what we have to offer, and want to see us succeed.