For Michael and Shari Zuckerman, building dollhouses began as a hobby, something they could do together in the evenings after a long day.
"It keeps you communicating," said Michael Zuckerman, who during the day works at the elevator business he owns, Titan Elevator & Lift Co.
Several years ago, the Zuckermans turned their dollhouse hobby into a business when they launched American Dollhouse Co., a business they ran out of the garage of their Setauket home. This past July, they expanded to open their first store, The Toy Shoppe in Setauket, where they sell their dollhouses and dollhouse accessories.
"Anyone who has one knows that there's only a few places on Long Island to get this stuff," Shari Zuckerman said.
These days Michael Zuckerman crafts the dollhouses himself. Each takes around one to two months to finish and costs between $200 and $3,000, depending on its features.
The Toy Shoppe also carries an expanded inventory of dolls, plush animals, puzzles and games, activity sets, action figures, toy cars and trains, kites, classics like Cabbage Patch Kids and Slip 'n Slide, and more.
"You can get some of this stuff at Target and the other stores, but you can't get all of it," said Zuckerman, who worked in the banking industry before leaving to have her children, Alyssa, 6, and Ashley, 3.
Her vision for The Toy Shoppe recalls the movie Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, where kids can play and try things before their parents buy them.
The store itself used to be part of the neighboring Bikram Yoga center. It took Michael Zuckerman three months to transform the space himself. And it took a certain amount of risk for the Zuckermans to make the decision to open a store amid a less-than-robust economic climate. Knowing a parent's devotion helped them choose to go ahead with the project.
"People do what they have to for their kids," Shari Zuckerman said. "They won't go out to dinner, but they will buy a toy for their child."
The store's initial investment came from funds they had earmarked for retirement – money which they originally put into the stock market, but which Michael Zuckerman said they wanted to "put into something that could quite possibly make something, instead of the stock market."
Gloria Glowacki, director of operations at the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University, called the Zuckermans' choice a smart move.
"I think that's a great statement. They invested in themselves," Glowacki said. "There were a lot of people who were displaced because of what happened on Wall Street. Many people are starting to open small businesses."
The Zuckermans wanted a small shop close to their home, and did their research. They paid attention to where all the cars were parked at different times of the day and the week, and realized that the building at 764 Route 25A was a prime location, with both daytime and evening traffic thanks to neighboring businesses like Bliss and Denise Lee Salon and Spa. And there was one more important factor in the location decision.
"Route 347 is chaos," Shari Zuckerman said. "We wanted to beat the traffic. Stay away from 347. Nobody wants to go on 347."
She is not worried about competition from national chains like Toys 'R Us, Target and Walmart. Zuckerman, who is involved in the PTA at daughter Alyssa's school, hopes her relationship with other parents in the area will help grow the business.
"People in this area like to shop locally," she said. "We want to be that neighborhood toy store."
The Toy Shoppe opened July 17 but threw a grand opening party on Saturday complete with radio station promotion and support from the Three Village Chamber of Commerce. A steady stream of customers browsed the store.
"I think it's a really nice store," said Joan Vanston of Lindenhurst, who picked up some Automoblox for her six great-grandsons. "Different items. I think there's something for everyone."