"I'm just an old-fashioned toymaker preparing for the future of my craft."
Downtown Rutland hasn’t looked the same since Michael’s Toys set up shop on Merchant’s Row, the city’s staid, traditional business district. What’s the difference? Proprietor Michael Divoll calls it his P.T. Barnum act.
“I’ve got [wooden] animals hanging on my building, rocking horses and cows on the sidewalk. It creates an ambience that draws customers into the shop. I’ve got to do more than just hanging up a sign because that doesn’t provide people a frame of reference. So I engage in a little P.T. Barnum, but without the phony glitz and glamour.”
The sidewalk experience is just the beginning. Michael’s Toys elicits spontaneous comparisons to Santa’s North Pole workshop, and Divoll himself, with his pipe, apron and graying beard, surrounded by the materials and tools of his trade, makes a convincing elf. Except that he does this year round, and he adds other elements to his work: Divoll is a gifted carver who produces artistic Vermont tableaux in relief, as well as custom wooden signs for homes and businesses. These also are on display in his shop.
“When people walk in and see the horses and cows and deer and moose and planes and trains the way I build them, it’s like stepping back in time. My workshop is in back of the showroom, which is key. If people say ‘Did you build this?’ and you can say ‘Yes,’ it’s a way of connecting to the customer; you’re doing something for them personally, other than just taking their money.”
A little showmanship, a studied approach to identifying and marketing to his customer demographic, and the exposure that comes with his new digs on Merchant’s Row have provided immediate results for Divoll. Since taking occupancy of the two-story building last May, with the support of a business loan by the Vermont Community Loan Fund, he could already report in November that 2005 would be by far his best year since he went into toy making in 1985.
That comparison is mitigated by the fact that Michael’s Toys had been pretty much of a shoestring operation for a number of reasons, location certainly among them.
Most recently the former canoe maker had worked out of a second-story apartment on nearby Center Street. In 2004 the Rutland Community Land Trust purchased and renovated that property to create affordable housing, with retail space on the first floor. Obligated to relocate the displaced tenants, the Land Trust and Divoll together identified the vacant building just around the corner on Merchant’s Row, which had once housed a Chinese restaurant. The Land Trust put up money for renovations, and in return the owner gave Divoll a 15-month option to purchase the building at a favorable cost.
However, Divoll needed a loan for the purchase, and as a 61-year-old self-employed craftsman with a limited credit history he was not the ideal candidate for traditional lenders. The Land Trust referred him to the Vermont Community Loan Fund, where Director of Business Lending Sam Buckley saw in Michael’s Toys a golden opportunity.
“To me, this epitomizes the kinds of loans we like to make,” says Buckley. “It meets our mission in a number of ways: It provides someone with employment, it makes the downtown more vibrant and contributes to its revitalization, and it provides Michael a home as well, on the second floor.”
The stability of owning his highly visible business location and his residence enables Divoll to invest his energies not only in making new toys, carvings and signs, but in honing his marketing strategy, which he does with enthusiasm. Specifically, he strives to capitalize on Rutland’s proximity to Killington and other southern Vermont ski areas.
“The ski experience has changed,” Divoll says. “It’s vacation more than recreation. It attracts family contingents, but not all of them ski; the elders and adults go shopping.”
When they enter his store, he says, the toys they see ring familiar. They’re not the plastic “interactive” toys that dominate today’s commercial market, but wooden animals, vehicles and riding toys like the ones they played with in their youth. Nostalgia, craftsmanship and the uniquely Vermont character of his toys (rocking cows) are his stock in trade.
Interestingly, Michael Divoll sees the future in these reminders of the past.
“My industry – the industry of people making objects with their hands from natural materials – has been in the closets, basements and garages for 40 years,” he says. “Now is the time for it to bud, like a flowering rose.”