CARY — The Lizard of Oz turned 20 this year – well beyond the life expectancy of an iguana, even one doted on as the mascot of a science-themed toy store.
His home, Science Safari, has also beaten the odds. The store has survived for 23 years tucked in a 1,300-square-foot storefront space in Salt Box Village on Kildaire Farm Road, where it offers a hand-picked selection of toys – from rockets to crystal-growing kits to nature-themed puzzles – along with science classes and birthday parties.
Over the years, the store has weathered several recessions, an influx of big-box stores and competition from online retailers. And it entered a new era Aug. 30, when longtime employee Sean O’Neal took ownership of the store.
O’Neal worked at Science Safari for 21 years before he bought the business. He says the shop has survived by filling a niche market and evolving to meet new challenges – while always maintaining its unique product line and knowledgeable customer service.
“People ask me what the hot toy is going to be this year and I say, ‘I don’t know, because we’re probably not going to have it,’” says O’Neal, 43. “We’re going to carry toys that have value and that kids will play with longer.”
But what most visitors to the store are likely to remember are the animals.
The Lizard of Oz, nicknamed “Ozzy” and 3 spiky feet long, spends much of his day wandering the back room where classes are held. A wall holds cages full of hissing cockroaches, chinchillas, snakes, frogs and more.
Myrtle the turtle is stationed near the checkout counter, next to a display of edible insects.
A focus on science
Becky Blair, who opened the store with her husband, Jon, says they started out with just a few snakes. Most of the other animals have been donated over the years.
Blair had worked at a museum in Charleston, S.C., before they opened the store, and envisioned it as a science museum gift shop without the museum – and with the hands-on science classes many museums offer.
Its location in Cary put Science Safari within reach of the many science-minded parents who work at Research Triangle Park. When the store opened, science education was minimal at the elementary level in many schools, and the store’s classes filled that gap, O’Neal says.
Over time, the classes have found different audiences. The daytime classes are popular among home-schoolers. And the product line has evolved to include items that go beyond traditional science toys.
Lately the store has a different set of opportunities and challenges: The trend toward shopping locally has been a boon, while a renewed public interest in science has fueled more competition.
Blair credits good service and a loyal customer base with keeping the business alive.
“The customers kind of became our friends over the years,” she says.
Learning through playing
The staff has been equally loyal. In addition to O’Neal’s 21 years, a part-time staffer first came to the store for science classes when he was 4 years old.
Both of Blair’s sons worked at the store, and she has taught the children of some of her earlier students in science classes.
O’Neal had worked at a toy store when he was in high school in Greensboro, and was earning a degree in chemistry at N.C. State University when he took a sales job at Science Safari. He became a manager within a few years, and continued working there after graduation.
He describes himself as a “big kid” who still gets a kick out of levitating foil with static electricity or feeding the chinchillas Cheerios. But he also stuck with his college job because he loves encouraging children to enjoy science, and to learn as they play.
“For a child, play is their job,” he says. “It’s how they learn about the world and figure out how things work, and people don’t always take that seriously enough.”
The Blairs opened the store when their children were young; now they are moving on to new pursuits and their children are in college. She is now working as a sales representative for a group of toy companies. Jon Blair is focused on another passion, fixing and reselling homes.
O’Neal says he doesn’t plan to make big changes, but Blair says the new ownership will inevitably bring new innovations that help the store continue to evolve.
“After 23 years, we were status quo,” she says. “It will be nice to see someone come in with new ideas and different tastes. He’ll put his own spin on it.”