July 1, 2000: Headlines: COS - Iran: Toys: Art: Crafts Report: Iran RPCV Dave Spencer is Toy Artist

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Iran: Peace Corps Iran : The Peace Corps in Iran: July 1, 2000: Headlines: COS - Iran: Toys: Art: Crafts Report: Iran RPCV Dave Spencer is Toy Artist

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Iran RPCV Dave Spencer is Toy Artist

Iran RPCV Dave Spencer is Toy Artist

My path to toy making was pretty indirect. I'm in my mid 50s now and have been making toys for about 10 years. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and got a degree in city planning -- ironic that I now live at the "end of the road" in a county that doesn't even have a stoplight! I worked as a planner for about 10 years in Iran (through the Peace Corps), Cincinnati and Indianapolis. I burned out on the office routine and took a job for a couple of years as the water and sewer commissioner for a small town near Indianapolis (big title, small pay!). I took a motorcycle vacation to the Ozarks and fell in love with the place. So, 18 years ago, I closed up shop in Indiana and moved here.

Iran RPCV Dave Spencer is Toy Artist

Dave Spencer: Toy Artist
by Noelle Backer

Many craftspeople dream of setting up a studio in a rural location. But, while a secluded, bucolic area can be an ideal environment for creativity, being tucked away from most of the population also means being away from potential customers.

For 10 years, Dave Spencer has worked in his one-person toy-making studio in the Ozark Mountains in Newton County, Ark., and deals daily with the challenge of reaching customers from his secluded locale. He says he "used to think that if you made it, they would come," but soon realized otherwise. Developing a connection with his state craft guild, and exhibiting at several retail shows, including a regional bluegrass music festival, have helped him reach his market. And, while he believes that the Internet is as competitive as any other marketplace for crafts, he believes it will provide great advantages to craftspeople like him who live at the "end of the road."

TCR: How did you first get involved in toy making?

DS: My path to toy making was pretty indirect. I'm in my mid 50s now and have been making toys for about 10 years. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and got a degree in city planning -- ironic that I now live at the "end of the road" in a county that doesn't even have a stoplight! I worked as a planner for about 10 years in Iran (through the Peace Corps), Cincinnati and Indianapolis. I burned out on the office routine and took a job for a couple of years as the water and sewer commissioner for a small town near Indianapolis (big title, small pay!). I took a motorcycle vacation to the Ozarks and fell in love with the place. So, 18 years ago, I closed up shop in Indiana and moved here.

I didn't know how I was going to make a living. My house back in Indiana didn't sell for a few years. Meanwhile, I was learning the reality of life in a poor rural area. I lived pretty "close to the bone," picking up odd jobs, and even went tree planting in the south one year. I eventually picked up some useful skills that I could market here (there was not much call for city planners), including carpentry and sign painting.

I continued a stained-glass hobby [that I had been exploring over the years], getting a few commissions and trying a few craft shows (with limited success). I [also began] making kaleidoscopes, which became my first toys. I gradually got into wooden toys after my dad gave me a table saw, and I was blessed with a daughter (Katie, who is now 13) to make toys for. Also, I had concerns about Katie [being] around the lead and chemicals involved in the glass work, [so I gave it up].

My first toys were simple designs from books. The more I worked with the wonderful local woods (I prefer red cedar, walnut, cherry, and ash) the more in love with woodworking I became. The availability of wood in this region has proved an asset, but of course the flip side is that markets are few and far between. Arkansas is one of those states with a high craftspeople/consumers ratio, too. As I got further into it, I found I really enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a good, new toy. I come from a line of machinists and engineers -- maybe that has something to do with it. Cranking out a bunch of a particular toy can feel like a "job," but there is always the challenge of coming up with a better way to accomplish any given task, including safety, efficiency and quality. The fact that every piece of wood is different helps keep it interesting, too.

TCR: Through what venues do you sell your work?

DS: I do about six to 10 craft shows a year, mostly in Arkansas. These, as I'm sure most of your readers know, entail a major effort and don't always work out financially. I'll probably always do some though, even after I've hopefully built up my business to a point where [doing shows is] optional.

I guess the biggest kick [about doing shows] is seeing the smiles and fascination the toys evoke (from the parents, too -- I think we're all kids at heart). It is direct feedback on the designs. I'm always trying to improve my line. The shows also give me a chance to "indoctrinate" kids with my thoughts on the need to take better care of the planet. The toys are a perfect vehicle (no pun intended!) for raising the subject of chemical leeching of spent batteries into the water table for example (not to mention it's a great selling point for the parents).

I also sell wholesale and on consignment to several shops in the region, including the five shops operated throughout the state by the Arkansas Craft Guild, a cooperative of some of the finest craftspeople in the state, with 300 members. We also sponsor a spring show (in Mountain View) and a Christmas show (in Little Rock).

I've been trying to develop a mail order business over the last few years. I have a one-page hand-drawn catalog that I hand out at shows. I update it periodically to reflect product changes. I try to do some of the other good stuff, like maintaining contact with shops, keeping a customer list (for guild shows we send out free admission tickets to encourage return customers), mailing out my brochure; but in all honesty, I'm better at production than promotion.

TCR: Has the Internet affected your business?

DS: A couple of years ago, taking advantage of a grant, I had a Web page designed. The Web page was designed by a local provider in Harrison (the closest town of any size). They were paid out of a Forest Service grant (half of Newton County is National Forest and a National River). Its purpose was to aid small businesses as part of an effort to promote diversification of the local economy. About six of us took advantage of the grant.

They did a wonderful job, but as of yet it has brought little business in. I'm just not getting "found." We're still working on it though. ... Cyberspace is as competitive as anywhere else. But e-business does expand the potential of craftspeople living in remote places, it seems. I have high hopes -- anything that can keep [people] from having to drive our crummy roads is worth looking into (and, of course, it's better for the air).

I'm coming to realize that it's not a panacea, but a very useful tool. It does put us out there in "the world." ... A couple of deals have come through the Web that represent a new way of doing business for me. Two were offers to promote my Web site for a percentage of sales (15-20) that would come through their "virtual malls." I said "go for it," but nothing has come of it, at least yet. Yesterday I sent off a sample of toys to folks that will buy directly from me at wholesale for resale on the 'Net. We'll see.

Actually [even] getting a computer here recently was a big stretch for me. I'm a low-tech person. But I can see it will become ever more of a necessity [for] staying competitive and growing the business. Having an e-mail address [seems] especially useful. I don't expect to make "big bucks" as long as I'm making every toy by hand, but I very much value the freedom, satisfaction, and quality of life that toy making facilitates.


Dave Spencer
Spencer Toys
HC 72, Box 87
Parthenon, AR 72666
Ph: (870) 446-2795
E-mail: toys@jasper.yournet.com
Web site: http://newtoncoark.com/spencertoys/

TCR: Do you see any challenges specific to toy makers?

DS: To design and make toys that are fun, safe and aesthetically pleasing.

TCR: Do you have to have your toys approved or certified for child safety?

DS: No, I just try my best to minimize any risk by maintaining high standards in design and production.

TCR: What business insight have you gained over the years?

DS: To keep plugging away -- life's short, follow your heart, have fun!

Noelle Backer is senior editor of The Crafts Report.

When this story was posted in January 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Crafts Report

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