Blinn's: 77 years of fun in Fairfield County
Published 1:02 am, Friday, April 9, 2010
1933. The most savage year of the Great Depression. One person in four was unemployed, and the rest had to make do on an average wage of $1,550 per year. Those who had any discretionary income at all, and were so inclined, could buy a car for around $450. But the vast majority, whose backs were firmly against the wall, chose instead, a can of Campbell's soup for 10 cents. Think we've got it tough today?
Al Blinn must have seen an opportunity in all this gloom because right smack dab in the middle of America's worst depression ever, he opened a toy store.
Blinn's on Canon Street in Bridgeport did well, and over the next decade or so, the little store contributed to the general mirth of kid's birthdays and holidays by selling early examples of some of toydom's greatest hits. Remember the Betsey Wetsy doll? Big seller. So were the board games, Sorry in 1934 and Monopoly in 1935. But the high-tech iPod of the day was the View-Master 3-D Viewer. Most popular reel? A Scenic Tour of Mecca.
Frank Crofutt, father of the present owner, Mark, went to work for Mr. And Mrs. Blinn when he was 16. The Blinns had no children, so, over time, with diligence and hard work, Frank took over the store. In 1960, Blinn's, now under Frank's proprietorship, bought Carousel Toys, which was located where Centro restaurant is now, and operated both stores simultaneously until 1980 when the store centralized operations at its present address, 50 Unquowa Place.
Frank's son Mark is a gentle soul with a calm demeanor and playful eyes. Straight, shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair lends a somewhat musicianly appearance at first glance. More about that later. Mark grew up in Trumbull and from childhood he was well aware of the family business. Looking back, he acknowledges, "If you had to be in retail, what could be better than a toy store?" He came on full-time in 1988.
Mark's early memories of popular items include electric trains, wagons, of the "Little Red" variety, dolls of every kind and the dream birthday/ Christmas/Hanukkah present for every kid that ever lived: a shiny new bicycle. This list is still applicable today because yesterday's kid is today's parent. There are differences however. These days, the train set is often used for decorative purposes only, circling the base of the tree and providing a sort of up-dated Currier & Ives moment for those who want a classic Christmas "look."
A gentleman named Antonio Pasin introduced America to a four-wheeled pull wagon for kids in 1930. A fascination with scientific advancements in both flight and radio technology prompted him to name the wagon the Radio Flyer. But it wasn't long before parents and kids alike started calling it "the little red wagon." Blinn's still carries the original style, although a peek into the dedicated wagon "showroom" in the back of the store reveals several more upscale and "optioned out" models. One so fancy, a GPS device wouldn't seem out of place.
If there's one constant in kid's toys, it's change. Trends and fads come and go with dizzying speed. Right this second, the white-hot items are tiny pencil erasers in a gazillion shapes. Remember the little pink rubber ball sometimes nicknamed the "Spaldeen?" That's still around. Asked how many Frisbees the store has sold, Mark eventually agrees it's in the double-digit thousands. And then there's a certain young lady who was born in 1959 with the name Barbie Millicent Roberts. Yep, it's Barbie, the most famous doll in the world -- and one toy that Blinn's hasn't always carried. But fairly recently, a customer asked, "How can you call yourselves a toy store and not have Barbie?" The prodigal doll has returned.
As the seasons whirl by, each demands its own specific recreational equipment. Spring and summer call for Wiffle balls and bats, kites and croquet sets. The cold weather sends everyone inside to play with toy soldiers and dolls, trains and board games. And it is this ever-repeating but always changing cycle that keeps Mark both interested and enthusiastic. He's watched the kid who's dad bought him a little red wagon, now buying one for his daughter. Tradition is a big deal at Blinn's.
If running a classic toy store isn't enough to keep Mark thinking young, then the three bands he plays guitar with in his spare time supply more than enough adrenaline to slow down the aging process substantially. Grateful for his thousands of loyal customers, grateful to have a job that involves a lot of smiling and giggling, and grateful to be able to rock out on the weekends, Mark's as happy as, well, a kid in a toy store.
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of articles by Downey featuring long-standing Fairfield and Southport businesses and organizations. If you have an idea for a story, please contact us at email@example.com or (203) 255-4561, ext. 111.