Brenham Banner Press
By: Arthur Hahn
Betsy Newman's store may be the happiest place in Brenham.
Her Barnhill House Toys and Books at 606 S. Austin St. brings smiles to the faces of adults who find a beloved childhood toy and to children smitten by rooms filled with items that can be pushed, pulled and prodded.
You won't find any video games there.
Newman's business evolved from her initial enterprise, Fruit Baskets of Brenham, which she started in 1989.
A few years later, she went 100 percent into the toy business and has been delivering smiles ever since.
"That's really what we try to do," said Newman. "We can't compete with Target and Walmart, so we try to make it fun to come in here. Old music, theme songs, old-fashioned toys like a jack-in-the-box, wagons, tricycles, classic storybooks, stuffed animals ... we try to have things you might not find in the big box stores."
People driving by will notice things in the front yard like a giant stuffed teddy bear sitting in a pedal car. Inside is a whole world of hard-to-find items for shoppers 8 to 80.
"I have a lot of grandparents come in and they just love it," said Newman. "They say they haven't seen some of these things since they were little. That makes me feel so good.
"Moms and dads ... It's surprising how many men like it in here. They come in and like to play.
"One of the things that made the biggest impression on me was when this little boy walked into the store, turned and looked around and said, 'Awesome!'"
Newman said she competes with larger stores by having unique items and by providing top-notch customer service.
"It's hard to compete with Amazon. People want to buy stuff and get it fast," she said. "But the feeling you get when you come in here ... you can actually squeeze the dolls and hug the teddy bears. You can read the whole book.
"And there's complimentary gift wrapping. These are things we try to do to convince people to come in.
"What I really like is when people come in and say, 'Do you have such and such?' and we can take them right to it."
Betsy and her husband Jerry lived in the house, built by her grandparents, for 11 years. She ran the store from the garage until about 2000.
"They (customers) would call me and say, 'Hey, I need a birthday present' so I'd open it up," she said. "When we moved out, I couldn't sell my grandparents' house."
So the house became a store filled with toys and books — and regular hours of operation.
As expected, business picks up considerably during the Christmas holiday season.
"In mid-November we start being open every day," Newman said. "It's good and it's busy. It's kind of a tight, crowded store. It reminds me of a store in New York where everybody is crammed in there."
Newman didn't start out being a toy store entrepreneur. She earned a college degree and began teaching kindergarten classes, first in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district and then at Brenham Elementary. That changed as she became a mother herself.
"When we started having kids, I stopped teaching," she said. "As they (her children) grew older, I missed that young kindergarten age. That's when we really started getting focused on toys and books.
"I pretty much know what 6-year-olds like."
There are board games for all ages, books and a wide variety of other toys.
The consistent best-sellers?
"Books and stuffed animals," said Newman. "They love those the most."
The "hottest" items consistently are "Plasma Cars," those brightly colored vehicles that are kid-powered. Or adult-powered, depending on the model.
Newman keeps some hanging from the porch at the store, and they're eye-catching.
With a bow to technology, Newman is adding some new items to her inventory this Christmas, like a karaoke "app" which she said "is selling like crazy."
"It's fun to have some things maybe you haven't seen before," she said.
But the old standards like blocks and games will always have a prominent spot in The Barnhill House, Newman added.
"If they (customers) are looking for a certain thing, I've got to have it," she said. "Blocks, games, things kids still play today.
"We have some things that do have to have batteries, but we have more things like wooden toys, not so much the plastic things."
The business is somewhat of a family affair, with the Newmans' children helping out then they can during the busy season.
Husband Jerry, a teacher at Brenham High School and head coach of the Cubs track team there, is indispensable, said Betsy.
"Jerry puts things together," she said with a laugh. "Every pedal car you see, he's put it together."
Overall, Betsy said, the goal of the business is "happiness."
One of The Barnhill House's employees told her, "It's such a happy place to be. I'm happy to come to work. It's a happy job."
"That's gratifying to hear," said Newman.
"The fun thing about this place is just walking in," she said.