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Larry Cobabe, owner of G.R. Doodlebug toy, gift and decor store in Danville, Calif. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009. Despite the odds, Larry has maintained a healthy business by offering the kind of customer service and unique toys that the big box stores can't offer. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

DANVILLE — Larry Cobabe and his wife, Patricia, love running their toy store, GR Doodlebug. But they also are no fools.

With fierce competition from big-box retailers such as Toys 'R' Us and Wal-Mart, as well as online retailers, they know being able to compete with them on price is far-fetched.

"There is no way a store that pays rent in Danville can compete with large distribution centers in Omaha," Larry Cobabe said.

"Next to being an independent book store, a small toy store has to be the next hardest business right now," he added.

However, that doesn't mean they are about to waive a white flag either. Through careful selection, customer service and loyal customers, they believe they can still thrive.

GR Doodlebug started in a shopping center in Danville. It has since moved down the street to 700 Sycamore Road. The couple also have a location in nearby Blackhawk Plaza.

They started GR Doodlebug at the behest of Patricia, who had worked at a similar place and wanted to do something of her own.

"I told her I will do it, but as soon as it's up and going I'm going to do my own thing," Cobabe said.

That was 12 years ago. He is still there. The name, by the way, is family shorthand for what the Cobabes' called their daughter, Genevieve Rose. Now 28, she manages the Blackhawk store.

You won't find Zhu Zhu Pets or "Call to Duty 2" at GR Doodlebug stores. Instead, the Cobabes try to deliver items that are unique.


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"We try really hard to help people, and find high quality toys kids will play with," Genevieve said.

On the online review site Yelp, one customer, who identified herself as Wendy V. from Dublin, wrote, "I needed a gift for a 3 year old little girl and the sales lady recommended a variety of different choices. I wound up buying a really cute doll set, thanks to her suggestions."

She gave it 5 out of 5 stars. The lowest was one reviewer that gave it two stars because he felt someone cut in front of him in line, but he did note, "They had nice merchandise."

To keep the merchandise appealing, the family will often go to toy conventions to try and find something that will draw the eye of their customers.

They search for toys that "kids play with," not a toy that "plays by itself." The Thomas and Friends train sets, science kits, and toy trucks are big sellers.

"Most people go to the big stores to search out the things that are advertised," Cobabe said. "We try to give them toys that they might not initially think about."

In 2008, U.S. toy sales were $21.6 billion. That was down 3 percent from the year before, according to market research firm NPD Group.

This season, Richard Gottlieb, president of Richard Gottlieb's USA Toy Experts, anticipates a slight increase in toy sales over last year because parents will shift to more financially manageable toys from higher-price video games.

This year, Cobabe said his average item sale is down about $5. However, overall sales are up slightly from a year ago.

Gottlieb says that while independent toy stores have their challenges, there is still opportunity for them to do well.

"I think what a great toy store can do that a retail chain can't is give people a sense of magic and wonder," Gottlieb said. "As soon as you walk in the doors there's a sense of excitement."

Also, smaller stores provide customers a more hands-on experience where kids can handle some of the toys. GR Doodlebug also includes gift wrapping and the ability to personalize some of the toys by painting names on them.

"Some people worry about all the competition and how to deal with it," Cobabe said. "The hardest thing for us is that our loyal customers' kids grow up."

INFO:
Name: GR Doodlebug
Owners: Larry and Patricia Cobabe
Locations: 700 Sycamore Road, Danville (925) 362-1560
3626 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville (925) 736-1800
Holiday hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Store's top selling toys: 1. Calico Critters 2. Plasma Cars 3. Mighty World 4. Thomas Wooden Railroads 5. Ugly Dolls