Almost all toys, from simple building blocks to Minecraft and Sims, hinge on a single concept: world-building. Once kids peer into a tiny realm in front of them, they instinctually populate it with characters – and the best ones come from their imagination. New York City’s best alternative toy stores lock into this concept better than any corporate supercenter. Their creative offerings are guaranteed to whisk your kids away to fantasy worlds, in ways a touchscreen never could. Prepare those arms for a few extra boxes while you’re at it – you might get swept up in the toyland fun of it all, too.
Once inside this tabletop board game mecca, you’re right back in grandma’s jam-packed game closet – only it’s mingling with every other game closet in America at the most bonkers convention ever. Saunter past floor-to-ceiling, crammed shelves in an encyclopedic bunker of strategy games. An unmistakable, dusty musk fills your head with memories of medieval times, Middle Earth, and lazy afternoons transformed into adrenaline-pumping war games. Try your darndest to settle on one of several enticing titles you’ve never heard of: Cargo Noir thrusts you to a ’50s sea dock where you’re smuggling shady goods, and Double Agent is a card game that charges you with trusting – or mistrusting – five shady secret agents. What’s a parent to do? Balance your pick with a classic. Who wouldn’t love Wizard of Oz Monopoly?
Gotham Model Trains
The incessant whistle at the front door means a train’s a-comin’, and once it’s finished rolling down the bend, you’ll have seen one of the largest collections of vintage and new model trains the city has to offer. Lift up your little one so they can gaze over a miniature Alpine landscape handcrafted by store owner Robert Lorayne, where tiny people and sheep overlook German homes and trains tunneling through rocky hillside. Behind glass cases are higher-end freights, but your tyke will do best with a starter set of a few cars and a length of track. Once they’ve become thoroughly obsessed, come back for miniature yellow maple trees, a rainbow of turf for landscaping, grey-bricked tunnels, and mini families – complete with Fido – to furnish their tiny village.
Toy Tokyo is the greatest “Oh, I’m just looking” shop in the city. Shimmy past display cases doubling as art installations in this out-there East Village toyland, featuring endlessly collectible Bearbricks – those strange, little plastic bearmen – a cutie Kidrobot plush rabbit with a mustache (a Moustache Labbit to fans), and a corner section specifically for Mickey, Goofy, Donald and friends. Then, head downstairs for special holiday bundle bags (each full of discounted mystery merch) and see the owner’s own KAWS collection – enormous, Mickey-esque humanoids from the NYC artist – which are unfortunately not for sale. The holidays are as good an excuse as any to pick up that vintage Luke Skywalker and introduce your young Jedi to the Force, but see what character among the cast of thousands makes him or her smile the most.
This Lower East Side toy hideaway takes Toy Tokyo’s figures-as-art-exhibit concept and runs wild with it: Truly bizarre, limited-edition designer toys and prints plaster the white walls in the skinny space. Have your older child tag along to see ultra-limited APO frog figures, each standing upright and decked in a trendy, froggie hoodie. Then try on a life-size unicorn hat with a rainbow mane and plush horn. Right next to it, you find clear plastic gummy-bear figures. You can peer inside them to see their eerily accurate anatomy. The gallery portion of the space holds monthly exhibitions, like the upcoming Monstrosities showcase welcoming frightening designs of monster toys. Gifts like these are guaranteed conversation starters, and their creativity is uniquely untainted by commercial interest. Rebellious older kids will just think they’re plain neat.
The Lego Store (Midtown West)
Avoid Rockefeller crowds at the more famous Lego location and get your brick fix instead at their new bright yellow digs in the Flatiron. How is it that no matter how old you get, opening up a huge block set still makes the heart race? Spy the huge Lego-fied dragon slithering around the space among dozens of other crazy brick displays, like a light-up Statue of Liberty torch and a circus elephant in one of many scenes depicting the historical evolution of the Flatiron District. Huge Lord of the Rings and superhero kits are surely for big kids, but head straight to the wall of pick-your-own-bricks, where blocks are organized by color, for infinite kit-building. The only thing missing is one wild imagination.