CRIES OF "Come here, quick, you’ve got to see this!" echo on a crowded Saturday afternoon at Faneuil Hall’s Zoinks! toy store. But these words are not just the exhortations of small children pressing holiday demands on their parents; young professionals and grandparents alike beckon one another toward the latest editions of toys that have a strong hold on their own memories, and a group of students in college baseball caps huddle in the infant section to plan purchasing strategies for young cousins.
Despite the age recommendations printed on the boxes of many products, toys have an allure that crosses generations. And this season, a wonderland of options will toy with your gift-giving imagination. Whether you’re looking to achieve eternal youth or just like to play, each toy you add to your cart makes shopping less of a chore.
"The holidays are one of the most stressful times of the year. Toys bring you back to what Christmas used to be," explains Melody Fleur, an assistant manager of Urban Outfitters in Harvard Square. "It gives a childlike, happy tone to the holiday, which has gotten to be so serious. Besides, everybody loves a toy. It’s a very low-stress gift to get: you don’t have to integrate it into your life or find a place for it, all you have to do is play."
"We like to carry toys that bring out creativity and imagination rather than just entertain," says Celine Vaughan, manager at No Kidding! in Brookline. She emphasizes that in addition to all the trendy toys — especially movie-based playthings that go out of style quicker than you can say "in its first weekend at the box office" — you can choose from plenty of other classic items that are still going strong.
It’s hard to find a more imagination-enhancing activity than building. No Kidding! carries a selection of materials for people big and little to exercise their urban-planning instincts. For those with architectural inclinations, there are plenty of traditional stand-bys like Lincoln Logs ($12.99–$49.99) and Bristle Blocks ($19.99 for 85 pieces). Future — and present — engineers might prefer a set of Geomags ($20.50), a favorite among customers (and staff) at Curious George Goes to WordsWorth in Harvard Square. Assembling a structure with the 52-piece set of magnetic ball bearings and rods requires strategic-balancing skills — and even more inventiveness.
Quality products may indeed stand the test of time, but just as children grow, the toy industry matures over the years. For instance, while remote-control cars were once one-clunky-size-fits-all, now you can get — or rather, give — models smaller than a light bulb. Samara Lamm, owner of the Kids Place in Newton, says Kid Galaxy Racers ($14.99), cordless remote-control cars, are zooming off the shelves for use by kids with and without a driver’s license.
On a more ride-able scale, young folks can scoot around on the Little People’s Products Spider-Man motorcycle ($199.99), which speeds up to a handle-bar-clutching four miles per hour, or Razor’s Scream Machine ($99.99), a slick version of Big Wheels, both of which can be found with a speedy log-on to Zanybrainy.com.
The digital era has not been lost on Lego. If you exhausted the inventory at the local electronics store last year shopping for your favorite gadget fanatic, head over to Zoinks! for the Lego Movie Studio ($147.95). Complete with a digital video camera and sound-editing equipment, the kit is a mini movie lot you can fill up with your own Lego sets. Then you can enact a sequence, film it, edit it, and even garner audience attention by sending the finished product off to Lego.com for the world to view. Know anybody who’s particularly taken with George Lucas? Pick up a Star Wars Lego series ($24.95–$99.95) so that cinephile can finally film the famous battle sequence the way she’s always said it should’ve been done. For technically adept constructors, there are Spybotics ($79.95), programmable robots you build with Legos. They come with a CD-ROM containing missions to be uploaded into the robot, which you then guide on its task with an infrared remote. They’re like video games come to life.
Some of us remember that when we were young, we thought we couldn’t outgrow dolls fast enough and couldn't wait to start building our own wardrobes. But even your most fashion-savvy friends could take a few tips from Manhattan Toy’s line of Groovy Girls ($11.95). The plush, 13-inch dolls can be found in stores throughout the city, but they draw budding hipsters in droves to Boing! in Jamaica Plain. The diverse dolls’ trendy funkiness is a force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by their faux fur coats, fringed tops, sparkly sweaters, mini pleather skirts, and leopard-print coordinates ($7.95–$10.95). "They appeal to a range of ages because there’s such a variety of them," says Boing! owner Elaine Hackney. "They’re really unique with different hair and skin colors, and they’re soft. Plus they have great clothes." Since the dolls are stuffed, they don’t have those daunting Barbie-body proportions that are so widely disdained. What they do have is some of the hippest furniture on the block, such as a fringed couch ($14.95) and a lush loft ($99.95), which could easily serve as a model for your grooviest gal pal as she revamps her apartment.
Groovy Girls are just one of several lines of playmates to sabotage Barbie’s popularity. Vaughan of No Kidding! says Get Real Girls ($12.99–$18.99) are another prime pick. Each has different facial characteristics and comes with the gear of a favorite activity, like scuba diving, basketball, snowboarding, or soccer. Of course, for unabashedly sassy femme form and muscle, check out Japanimation figures, many of which can be swooped up at Tokyo Kid in the Garage in Harvard Square. Evangelion ($13.95) comes with extra heads and arms, and the shapely gals and hunky guys of Final Fantasy X figures ($24.95) would amuse even those who think themselves too old for dolls.
"Anime is much more diverse than [American] cartoons," says Tokyo Kid’s Andrew Cocuaco. "There aren’t the self-imposed restrictions US companies have placed on comic books and animation, so [Japanese animation] is not automatically relegated to kids."
Zero Toys are among the other hot picks not relegated to the schoolyard. The Launcher and Blaster ($20.95–$24), found at Zoinks! and Urban Outfitters, are a bit like a bubbles-and-wand set with a lot more thought, physics, and ergonomics involved. Created by engineers, the translucent mechanisms, which look like a cross between a phaser gun and a hair dryer, shoot scented fog rings. They produce a toroidal vortex, the same motion that propels tornadoes and dolphins’ air bubbles, so whoever pulls the trigger can produce movie-caliber smoke-like effects that disappear in a puff.
There are also several toys that resemble refurbished versions of classics. Know any ace hacky-sackers? Fancy footworkers will welcome the new challenges of Myachi ($5), a sack derived from the simple college pastime of catching a lighter on the back of one’s hand. It’s available at Newbury Comics and at www.myachi.com.
"Instead of just kicking it — which is tough — Myachi lets you do cool tricks catching and tossing it with your hands," says creator Steven Ochs, who’s launched a grassroots campaign to spread the word about his sack. "We were all athletes at one point. Myachi is just the type of thing you can do anywhere: on the couch, on the subway, or in the park, like ultimate frisbee or freestyling it by yourself."
For those on your list who cling to the tried and true, Gumby and Pokey key chains ($6) snuggle merrily in the bins at Urban Outfitters, a clearinghouse of über-hip retro tchotchkes that make ideal stocking stuffers. Shoppers crowd the alcoves in the Harvard Square store fingering through giggle-guaranteeing gifts like Transformer key chains ($6), Mullet Dolls ($12), Tootsie Pop Lick-O-Meters ($8), and the Godfather of Soul himself, a dancing, singing, hip-swinging James Brown mechanical doll ($30).
"My generation are the ones who are creating toys today, so everything is coming back," says Kids Place owner Lamm, 27. "About 40 percent of the catalogues I go through is stuff I had when I was younger. Our generation are moms and dads today, so we’re the target audience." She notes that Shrinky Dinks ($9.95) and Mr. Wooly ($2.95) are among her personal favorites.
Does the retro route sound like it would thrill someone on your list? You’ll find plenty of affirmative nods at Newbury Comics, where classic bobble-head dolls ($9.99–$29.99) cram the shelves. All the old-school favorites are back in noggin-swinging action, from Strawberry Shortcake to Pee-wee Herman to a biker Betty Boop. Toss in the full set of head-wagging Monkees and everyone will have something to jiggle along to.
"This stuff makes great gifts because it’s harder to think what people need for practical purposes," says shopper Heidi Blankensip. But at the end of the day, what serves a more practical purpose than play?
Liza Weisstuch can be reached at email@example.com