ITHACA, N.Y—The Finger Lakes Toy Library recently relocated to a new space in the Shops at Ithaca Mall, a location that is three times as large as its previous location at Clinton West Plaza in Ithaca, which recently closed for renovations. It opens this week, with hours available on the store’s Facebook page.

The Toy Library, a local nonprofit organization that allows residents to borrow toys for their children to play with, first opened in 2016 when Debra Lewis and Amber Smith established it.

“Research has shown that play is how children learn best and toys are one of the tools of that play,” Lewis said.

Smith, having researched the value that playing can have for children’s development, wanted to make toys available for children.

“The idea of having access to toys that a lot of children couldn’t have access to for a variety of reasons, mostly cost, was a really appealing thing for me,” Smith said.

The Toy Library has more than 1,100 toys available for children of all ages. The toys are free to borrow, and membership is on a pay-what-you-can option, being free of charge if people are unable to pay. The Toy Library is also funded through donations and grants, with the Triad Foundation matching any donations made to the Toy Library’s crowdfunding campaign that up to $5,000.

Kelly Sauve, interim director of operations, said that lending toys to children helps parents save money. It also results in fewer toys going into landfills as they break or children get tired of them.

“As kids age, they don’t want the same toys,” Sauve said, “and toys either get put in a landfill and parents are spending a lot of money on toys, so this offers a way for people to have a lot of different things at a really low cost that’s also environmentally friendly.”

Smith said teaching sharing is difficult for children, because children often feel forced to share their belongings, but that if they can grasp the concept of borrowing books from a library, they can extend the concept to other things.

“There’s a real value in children understanding, that, as community members, we don’t all have to have our own things if it’s something that everybody can share,” Smith said.

Lewis said that toy libraries can teach children about sharing and the reuse culture from a young age, and grant children equal access to toys.

“If the community is sharing one big collection of toys, then the children can see that these toys are for everybody, they’re not just mine, I share them with the whole community and we have to take good care of these toys,” Lewis said.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Toy Library to close down on March 13, 2020, and it reopened for curbside pickup on June 22 of that year. This July, the library started allowing in-person browsing again, with only one family in the library at a time. The library also was only open eight to ten hours per week until it closed for renovations, and Smith hopes to double those hours once the Shops at Ithaca Mall location opens.

Apart from impacting the library’s hours, the pandemic also forced the library to disinfect and quarantine toys before lending them to other borrowers. It also resulted in the library canceling playtimes, in which it brings toys to locations such as libraries and after-school programs for children to play with, although Sauve hopes to resume those playtimes as after-school programs reopen.

“We’re definitely coming out of COVID hiding a little bit and reopening our doors to people, which is really exciting,” Sauve said.

In late July the Toy Library learned that renovations would be made at its Clinton West Plaza location, resulting in the Toy Library closing on Aug. 19 and forcing it to find a space to which they could relocate on short notice. 

“We needed to find the right space at the right price,” Sauve said. “Having to move pushed us to find a space and we waited until we found something. This is actually about three times the size of our other location, and it was good that we waited to find the perfect spot until we decided to move.”

The Toy Library’s leadership did research and deciding on the Shops at Ithaca Mall. The Toy Library’s location in the Shops At Ithaca Mall is in Suite D-07, across from Bath and Body Works, a space that is roughly 1,350 square feet large, compared to the previous location being less than 500 square feet.

“We quickly outgrew our old space, because our toy collection kept growing and growing,” Lewis said. “People wanted to donate toys, people wanted us to have certain toys available, they asked for certain things.”

The additional space will not only allow for more storage space, but also larger play areas for children. Sauve eventually hopes to be able to host birthday parties and game nights at the space once COVID safety guidelines permit it, and that birthday parties will allow for an additional stream of revenue..

Sauve said there are benefits to the Toy Library’s space in the mall, such as the glass windows allowing passers-by to see the Toy Library and the mall being on the bus line.

“We’re hoping that people will walk by and find out about us more,” Sauve said. “In our old space, we definitely didn’t have many people walking by and seeing us.”

Smith concurred that being located in the Shops at Ithaca Mall is more convenient than the Clinton Street Plaza location for many people, but not for those who live downtown and do not own cars.

Because rents are high for retailers in Ithaca, Smith is grateful for the Shops at Ithaca Mall offering a low-rent space for the Toy Library. Nevertheless, the Toy Library will have to pay more for the space than for its old location, at a time when membership dues are declining due to COVID reducing the number of visitors. 

Smith hopes that more people will stop by the Shops at Ithaca Mall location and become paying members. She said that while toy libraries are relatively uncommon in the U.S., she believes that people who take advantage of the Finger Lakes Toy Library’s services appreciate it.

“I would love to think that it’s a really valuable community asset,” Smith said. “I think that when I’m out and about and talking with people and they hear about the toy library, they just think it’s such a wonderful thing to have. I know a lot of people in other communities who don’t have a toy library and are wishing that they did, so it’s a really wonderful thing to have.”