Saturday, December 12, 2009

Skuut Balance Bikes - a good toy!

We sell lots of toys, but there are a few that I think make a real difference. Science kits, puppets, a first cookbook, there are lines you can draw back through your life to these toys and say "that's where it started". I think our balance bikes are truly a starting point for a lot of kids. These toys give a first taste of freedom. Skuut is the name of one of the two balance bikes we offer, the other is from Prince Lionheart. Both of them allow kids a chance to practice bike skills without pedals. It's a way to bypass training wheels and just go! I think there are more than a few kids that, in twenty or thirty years, will look back over a life of adventure and say "It started with that wooden bike I got!"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is It Buy a Quality Toy Tuesday?

This last weekend bugged me. The days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday seemed like an endless Soviet Era propaganda film about the decadence of the west. Sure I'm a retailer, but is it really all a big game, to trick people into spending money at your store no matter how, or why? Obviously I'm on a rant about what makes a specialty store different (see previous post), but I think things have gotten way out of hand.
ASTRA (the American Specialty Toy Retailers) worked hard this year to produce a list of toys - The Best Toys for Kids. We didn't come up with "Door Busters" or "3 at this Price" toys. This selection of toys, along with the rest of our products, our outstanding staff and pleasant shopping environment is what we have to offer. This weekend made it seem like that's not enough, but we're happy to offer these things on Friday, Monday and every day of the year.
Certainly media hype has a lot to do with "Black Friday". Send a reporter out, show some video of shoppers in the cold at 4 am. Big news story. Today The Golden Apple is holding our own "Dog Bites Man" news event. Customers thoughtfully choosing toys with our help. Free Gift Wrapping - film at 11. Hope you can find parking, what with all the TV news vans out front!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

We Are Thankful for Our Great Customers

People that make an extra effort are always appreciated, and shopping at a specialty store such as The Golden Apple Learning Store does require a little extra effort.
For one, you have to go against the powers of the big media/advertising machines that trumpet brand names and simple solutions. You have to gamble that you can judge an item's value on its own merits: few things in our store have ever had an ad campaign; they don't feature Sponge Bob on the package; They're just toys (but you can always ask us why they're great!). If everyone shopped like loose cannons, retailing in our country would likely collapse, along with the advertising industry.
Secondly, you have to buck the social norm of shopping where everyone else shops. It's not a small thing. The old saying "No one ever got fired for buying IBM" may not be true anymore, but the convention that going with a recognized, national brand is the safest choice is still prevalent. You may like being a rebel, but will the person for whom you are buying appreciate the effort?
We, of course, believe the benefits of shopping at a small independent store are many, and worth the effort. Check out the 3/50 Project for a few reasons. There is also one big benefit for us - the people that give us their business are the cream! We can't expect everyone to shop with us all the time, but the folks that do are exceptional, and we're grateful.

The playhouse in the picture is a Color Me House that was decorated by one of our exceptional customers, Julia. Thanks for sending us the pictures Michèle!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Imploding Industry

As readers of this blog know, we've been doing this a long time. So long in fact, that I am able to brag to the others at the Senior Center that I knew Frank Schaffer. If you don't know who Frank Schaffer is, let me tell you, he's a legend in the school supply industry. He invented the Cheap Chart! (Not quite at the level of inventing the laser, or the microchip, but...). Our history with the Frank Schaffer company is complicated. Once upon a time, we were joined at the hip. About half of everything we carried had the FSP logo. The company was famous for creating packages every year at the trade show - just buy the package, you get every new product, plus all the racks and displays, you don't have to pay for it for a year and we will take an extra 50% off the price for you. We filled our store with new charts, workbooks, bulletin board sets. When corporate merger fever arrived in the 80's, FSP was one of the first victims. They were bought by Instructional Fair, their chief competitor. That was ok, because we loved IF too. Then the new, merged company was bought by McGraw Hill. We loathed McGraw Hill. They were carpet-baggers, trashing companies, stealing the best stuff for their direct to schools division and firing all the people that made the companies good in the first place. Within a few years, McGraw-Hill sold the now hollowed-out company to School Specialty, who's entire business was selling directly to schools. After that, we dropped all FSP/IF/McGraw products. (By the way, this included dozens of other companies - Ideal, Judy Instructo, ATA, Good Apple etc. that had been swallowed at various times) The good news for the School Supply industry was that most of the great people that had made up all those companies drifted to new, innovative companies that still had ideas and energy. The main place they landed was Carson Dellosa.
Today I received an email telling me that Carson Dellosa has bought Frank Schaffer. This has turned into a giant Katamari that will eventually absorb everything. It's bad news for the industry - less publishers means less quality books. In the short term, it means we may carry Frank Schaffer products again. Wish I could be happy about that. I'll try to write more about this trend later.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Let's Celebrate the Private Sector!

It's not news that California schools have suffered massive budget cuts. Many schools are getting by on $1000 less per student, along with increased class size and staff cuts. Not an easy environment to learn in. This week, report cards arrive in our local schools, with parent conferences following. What that means for the Golden Apple Learning Store is business! Parents will turn out in droves for flashcards, workbooks and games. This first report card is always an eye-opener, and this year there will be lots of open eyes. The only way to assure personalized instruction is to do it yourself, and that's our chance to shine!
I would prefer better schools. Happy engaged teachers, small class sizes, and excited students would be as good or better for our business. I would rather have kids excited about reading, math and science - oh the things I could sell! Bring back the days of energized teachers with money to spend!
Instead we sell lots of remedial materials. When report cards arrive this week we will all learn the real-world effects of budget cuts.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Build It Up, Knock it Down

Apparently, this is something you don't outgrow. We see this live about 20 times a day. I hope his mother made him clean it all up.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Risk, Toys and Oysters

From the New York Times
"A federal effort to ban the sale of raw oysters harvested during the warm months along the Gulf Coast has kicked up a hurricane of opposition from oystermen and members of Congress and threatened to derail a signature food-safety initiative by the Obama administration.
The government plans to ban the sale of raw oysters taken from the Gulf of Mexico in warm-water months unless the oysters are treated to destroy deadly bacteria.
At issue is how far the federal government should go to save the lives of 15 people each year who die from eating contaminated raw oysters."

What's the connection? The Toy Industry is being turned upside down by the new CPSIA law that was passed a little over a year ago. Many small toy manufacturers (and stores) are threatened with extinction because of a poorly written law that punishes the little guys, while letting the big guys skate. Read more about the status here. Meanwhile, the seafood industry feels that saving 15 lives a year isn't worth forcing them to take basic steps to insure a safe product. Remember, no deaths or serious injury have been attributed to unsafe toys sold at Specialty Toy stores. Not per year, ever. The issue seems to be more about power than protecting consumers.
(by the way, I love oysters, and don't really think they need to be nuked. What ever happened to not eating shellfish in months without R? Also, look both ways before crossing the street!)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Where Does Music Come From?

Last month, Bill Harley visited our store. For those of you who aren't familiar with Bill, he is a Grammy winning singer/songwriter/storyteller. His songs and stories are perfect for school-age kids, as he captures the thoughts, feelings and trials of that age perfectly.
We were thrilled with the turn-out, and it was a special treat when Bill brought out his guitar and performed several songs for his fans. I was happy to see the kids enjoying music being made. It's very easy to disconnect the sounds that come out of cd players and ipods from the people that play. Seeing a person strum a guitar, open his mouth and produce music is magic, and the closer kids can get to the makers of this magic, the better. Live performances by musicians keeps them in business, and allows them to connect; it's an important connection for everyone.

How Do We Fix Our Schools?

"To fix our schools, we need teaching programs that are as rich in resources, interesting, high-reaching, and thoughtful as the young people we want to attract to the profession. Show me a school where teachers are smart, well-educated, skilled, and happy to be there, and I'll show you a group of children who are getting a good education."
-- Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College, in an op-ed in The New York Times, November 1, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Merit Pay for Teachers Effective? Maybe not...

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says paying public school teachers based on their performance is his "highest priority," and he plans to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars to states and school systems that embrace the idea. The Detroit News says the idea isn't such a slam-dunk... Read More

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Non-Candy Treats for Halloween

When I was of Trick-or-Treating age, I was on a food-allergy restricted diet. No chocolate for poor little me. My 15 pound pillow case stuffed with Snickers Bars, Almond Joys and Baby Ruths (and one toothbrush from a quixotic dentist) got upended on the trading floor to be exchanged for Smarties, Lemon Heads and Pixie Sticks. Other than the dentist, no-one thought twice about the pounds of candy we collected. I just remember thinking it wasn't enough, and plotting ways to gather more the next year.
Have things changed? Well, I can eat chocolate, and it seems that someone is now paying attention to the massive amounts of candy that come in to children's lives during the holiday season. I'm always for moderation, and since the Golden Apple doesn't sell candy, and does sell some really cool alternatives to candy, I'm in favor of it! Not all of them are as cheap as a Pixie Stick, but they do cost less than dental work, and kids get to enjoy them for much longer. Our top 5 suggestions:

    1. Halloween Pencils
    2. Iwako Erasers
    3. Wikki Sticks
    4. Pencil Toppers
    5. Rocks and Minerals (don't worry, kids do love them!)

Try it out, maybe the kids will appreciate your refreshing approach to tradition. Maybe they will soap your windows. No promises.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

We're a Real Toy Store!

Last Friday we received a huge delivery from Playmobil. A truck dropped a pallet of these amazing little toys outside our back door. We brought Playmobil in with some trepidation. It's a perfect toy, lots of play value, clever, creative, not based on existing story lines (like much of Lego now days). Pretty much a match made in heaven for an educational toy store. So why did we wait so long to bring it in?
The answer isn't simple, but to make it simple, let's just say we made it 30 years without carrying Playmobil, why start now? It's not hard for parents to find elsewhere, the company is a bit of a bully when it comes to telling you how and what to order, and we had no clue how to get started.
As with any decision like this, all we did was close our eyes and jump! And guess what, we just had a week of customers ecstatic over our decision! We've sold bunches, we've handed out dozens of the catalogs and we've even had customers thank us for bringing it in - they're excited that they can start buying it from us now. Now we just have to figure out what to re-order!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lük Learning Systems are cool

We've been featuring this product since spring, a new way for kids to build creative thinking and problem solving skills. I love products that are absolutely different from any other kind of toy, and Lük Learning Systems is very different. We have found that when playing with this in the store, kids literally light up. They understand how to use it, understand the challenge, and find it addictive. I copied this how to play from their website. It's very simple, and not one of their more interesting challenges - basic matching, but you can see how the system works:

Top-Notch Teachers Found to Affect Peers

From Education Week:
Teachers raise their games when the quality of their colleagues improves, according to a new studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Readeroffering some of the first evidence to document a “spillover effect” in teaching.

Authors C. Kirabo Jackson and Elias Bruegmann based their findings on an analysis of 11 years of data on North Carolina schoolchildren. The study is due to be published in October in American Economics Journal: Applied Economics, a peer-reviewed journal.

The authors and some independent experts said the study results are important, because they carry implications for school staffing practices and debates going on now at the national level over how to structure merit-pay plans for teachers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Happy Lunches

I have a Laptop Lunch Box. It's an item we've carried for a several years now, and we sell quite a few over the internet. A Laptop Lunch Box is a "bento box" that I pack my lunch in, usually left-overs. I do not make kittens out of rice or any of the other cute ideas listed in the article in the NY Times about this "new" fad. What I like about the Laptop Lunch Box is the size and convenience of the box system, and that I can bring food I made myself for lunch. Although it's not for me, I heartily endorse parents getting competitive in creating elaborate designs for their school lunches. Send me pictures of your best efforts and I'll post them!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Best Sellers for Back to School

We've always made lists of the things teachers loved most during our back to school rush. Everyone likes to know what's popular, and this year, through the magic of social media we are able to post our best seller list for the world to see, or at least a few more teachers than we see in the store on a regular basis. We've added these items to our web store, but keep in mind that some of them were so popular that we sold out - the Multi-Color kids for example. They'll be back in stock in a week or so. The partial list in no particular order:

I left off the old favorites like All-About-Me posters and Happy Birthday Charts. Teachers were in a good mood, despite the junk that got thrown at them this year. We're hoping this school year brings a little balance back to the curriculum - and allows teachers some job security and freedom to teach.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Trim Trade: What is it?

Trim Trade in ended on Wednesday. I probably should have written this up before the event ended this year, but as usual, it was a big hit, lots of teachers took advantage of the deal, and we have a huge basket of recycled trim ready for the shredder. So where did Trim Trade In come from?
We started TTI in my 3rd year of running the Golden Apple. Our small San Ramon store was starting to burst at the seams, and our companies were really breaking loose with fun designs for classroom decorations. Every year, Trend, Creative Teaching Press, and ATA (now gone) would try to top each other with new, cute designs in borders. 40 or 50 new designs a year was now normal. It was easy to see that without discontinuing some old styles, we were going to run out of space fast. However, innovation in borders was a new thing. For many years, teachers had used the same style, year in and year out. I think I have some of the designs burned in my head. So when I decided to discontinue for example the plaid design that was in Trend's first catalog, it was a catastrophe for some teachers. And they told me about it by waving a strip in my face: "I've done my classroom in this trim for 5 years, what do you mean you don't have it!" Turning that strip of trim into a coupon for a new style was an easy solution. It often diffused the situation, and got teachers to change their classrooms decor around.
Twenty or so years later, teachers are now used to styles changing. We rarely have the same thing for more than a few years. Plaid came back into fashion for a while, Gingham was a hit again. Now we do it as a tradition, since most teachers like changing things around anyway. Many stores across the country do a similar promotion, since the idea caught on at other stores, but it started here and it's something we can't discontinue!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What is Wrong With California?

There are probably many answers to that question! Here's what I'm wondering about. Have California 4th grade teachers stopped teaching about our state's history? I'm a 5th generation Californian, and I remember 4th grade, and all the amazing stories of our state. I also loved learning all about ranchos, missions, the gold rush and especially Joaquin Murrietta, the California Bandit.
At the Golden Apple, we have always kept a very large section of resources on California History. I ordered anything and everything that I thought a teacher might love. The demographics are such that there just aren't that many 4th grade teachers in a given area. Not enough to make California resources a high-traffic part of the store, but the teachers that came in appreciated our selection. When the internet came along, the first thing I put up on our site were our California materials. Finally, our huge assortment of books, music, charts etc could reach a state-wide audience!
The first disappoint was - it's hard to advertise California resources online. Every 4th grader working on his mission report clicked our google ad. The second disappoint was, even in the store, California history resources have stopped selling. Books that would sell in the dozens now sell in the 2-3 a year range.
Now bookstores love to blame Amazon for everything, but I checked - we have a better California history assortment than Amazon, at least for a 4th grade teacher.
I'm suspicious that the decline has more to do with Standardized Testing and NCLB. They're not testing on California history. No test, no teach, that is often the reality now days. That's a shame, because I can still remember our 4th grade field trip to the Irvine Ranch, our trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano, building a mission out of sugar cubes, and the crazy story of the little girl with golden curls who met the bandito Juaquin Murrieta. Kids that miss this in 4th grade don't have much chance of ever learning it again - but at least they can fill in bubbles!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rep Day is Wednesday!

It's our biggest event of the year, and we start planning for it one year in advance! So what is it exactly? Rep Day is August 5th this year. It's an opportunity for teachers to interact with the publishers who produce classroom resources. These publishers (most if not all founded by teachers) work very hard to match their products to classroom teacher needs. They are not encumbered by the rules for Textbook publishers - they watch for trends and try to have materials that match the trends as soon as possible. Many times, they are so out in front of classroom trends that teachers don't even know resources exist. That's why the reps come out, to show the teachers what the latest resources look like.
And then there are the free bags! All year, boxes of products arrive specifically for our Rep Day bags. Last week we spent the good part of a day stuffing bags and getting them ready. The first 200 teachers to arrive get a bag. Many teachers take their bags back to school and hold a big swap with other teachers, so everyone ends up with items appropriate to their grade level.
On top of that, every company represented at Rep Day is on sale for the whole day. This year, because it is our 30th year, 30% off. That's a big deal.
Finally, we try to make it fun. Prizes, games, silliness. Let's face it, so many teachers in a small space is going to be crazy. We go with the crazy. Come on out and have a good time, get there early and enjoy yourself. It's only once a year!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Cookies are Here

Starting this week, we have a treat for our teacher customers. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz, I rarely had two nickels to scrape together for anything. The one thing, besides beer, that I could always find money for was a Pacific Cookie Company peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. There was magic in them, something that restored all the energy long hours of study had drained. As a penniless student, one a week was all I could afford. Fortunately, they weren't dependent solely on my purchases, and 29 years later, they are still making wonderful cookies down in Santa Cruz.
During back to school, Pacific Cookie Company next-day delivers us fresh cookies that we use to boost spirits in our store during the crazy days of August. Because of our big 50 party on July 29th, cookies are arriving early, like this week - if it's worth a trip to Santa Cruz for one of these cookies, it's really worth stopping by The Golden Apple this week. Get here before they run out!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Puzzles and Logic

We're having a cold spell here, believe it or not. July 21 and it's about 57 degrees and howling winds, at noon. Almost typical for San Francisco, but not quite. Spending time outdoors is not always a summer activity in this city. So while others may recommend these games in January, we're putting them in our Summer Fun department. These recently received games test logic and deductive reasoning skills, a real challenge for ages 8 to adult.
When choosing puzzles, it helps to know what type of thinker you are buying for. I am a lateral thinker, I like analogies, scrambled words, crosswords and "you are the detective" type puzzles. Abstract puzzles, like rubick's cube drive me insane. What is the point? I would rather read. The game pictured above, Metaforms lands somewhere in the middle for me. Using deductive reasoning, you process each clue and place a form on the grid based on the given information. Each clue follows in a progression, so by careful reasoning, a solution is found. So simple!
Fortunately, we have several kinds of deductive and inductive puzzles and games. We have carried MightyMind for many years, and Meta-Forms (pictured above) is a bridge between MightyMind, SuperMind and more complex reasoning puzzles like Architecto. If you're trying to beat the heat (or the cold) test your deductive reasoning skills, your mind will heat up, but your problem solving will be oh so cool.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Teacher Gifts

Bill Harley talks about schools as a gift giving culture:

The good learning places I go to are filled with evidence of their being gift-giving cultures. Children bring in cupcakes and teacher presents. They happily wipe the blackboards or write get-well cards to sick teachers or other students. Math teachers show up at piano recitals; English teachers give books from their own libraries to interested students. All teachers buy supplies for which they aren’t repaid. These are all gifts, given freely, without thought of compensation. There is no way we can untangle the web of relationships that form in a learning environment.

826 Project at Sunday Streets

Yesterday San Francisco held an event called Sunday Streets in the Mission District. Much of the fun involved the freedom to zip around on streets free from auto traffic, but it was also an opportunity to showcase businesses in that part of the city. In my exploring I came across one of my favorite operations, the 826 Project and Pirate Supply Store. This idea came from author Dave Eggers. Yesterday, the kids from 826 were cartooning, which is part of the summer writing program. They were also making a push for volunteers, which I succumbed to. I'm looking forward to whatever they decide to do with me. The kids helping out at the their booth were full of enthusiasm, and I've always dreamed of being part of a pirate operation.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dancing in the Streets!

Tomorrow I will be volunteering for Sunday Streets in the Mission District of San Francisco. Sunday Streets is a tiny step in a world wide effort to reclaim a bit of the public common from the automobile, except only a little bit, and only for a few hours. The city of San Francisco will close a several block area to auto traffic, which will give families, older people, pedestrians, cyclists and everyone else a chance to enjoy the neighborhood without fear of getting clobbered by a car. One activity I have noticed during this year's Sunday Streets is lots of kids learning to ride, or practicing their skills. In a city of steep hills and few empty lots, this is a great time and place to learn. I love to see all the kids on Balance Bikes like the Skuut and Prince Lionheart Balance Bike racing around with confidence (and totally out of control). I hope the plan is to plant the seed in people's minds that streets are public space, and cars, for all their wonderful benefits, take away from that space. With the nice weather it will be a very fun day.

The Country that Sings

Last week I saw a wonderful movie about the power of singing. It's called "The Singing Revolution" and it tells the story of Estonia, and their battle against cultural annihilation. A battle they won, in part, because they sing, and have songs. Last year at this time I was fortunate enough to be in Latvia for their Song Festival, where I was in the audience for the song that is featured in this video. It's a very powerful song, and for the Latvians, a very subversive song that gave them strength during the Soviet occupation. (They actually sang it three times in a row that night)
It's something that has been driven out of American culture for the most part. Music is a product, like many other things in our culture, and not something that belongs to us (unless we paid $.99 to Itunes) Children start out singing, and teaching kids through song is universal in preschool, less now in kindergarten and then over by first grade. We are hard-wired for singing, and it stays in all of us, but other than "The Star Spangled Banner" at a baseball game, we don't all sing together. I think that unless you travel, you don't notice how bizarre this is. I was on the tube in London one day, and the car filled up with middle school kids on a school outing. It was completely packed. The train rolled a few stations, and then stopped in between, pitch black, and sat dead for 10 minutes. It was very unpleasant, as they say in Britain. Then spontaneously, the kids started to sing. We waited for about 45 minutes, and the middle schoolers never ran out of songs.
On another trip, I spent several winter months in Sweden. The sun sets at about 3 in the afternoon, so the evenings are very long. The young crowd I was hanging out with in those days were typical 20 somethings. But at every evening party I attended, or dinner, they sang. One dinner of 30, at a large round table, each guest was required to sing a song. Those with sweet voices sang pretty songs, those who lacked singing talent sang funny songs. When my turn came, I was saved by the fact that my parents were Berkeley graduates. I went to Cal camp every summer, and I knew "The California Drinking Song". I don't know if parents teach their kids songs about "drinking to California til we wobble in our shoes" anymore, but it got me out of a jam!
Back to Estonia, and my point. The Baltic people didn't overcome the Soviet occupiers with high test scores, or by teaching their two year olds sight words. They knew songs, and they were proud to sing them. Music is a cultural heritage, and if we don't make it a higher priority, it will be completely lost. Which is a shame, because it's not just an important part of us, it's an important part of us that we may someday need.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Kids on Bluegrass

The California Bluegrass Association has created a program to encourage kids to make music. The Kids on Bluegrass program helps young pickers grow their musical talent, performing at various festivals around the state.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What will you accomplish today?

Forty years ago, before we couldn't fund schools or provide decent healthcare for everyone we were able to to do this:

Visits to our Science Section will be manditory today!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Summer Books

Summer comes to an end early for us - our teachers, despite what the state puts them through, are eager to get back in there and teach. We have to have all our plans in place, and it sometimes puts the squeeze on our programs for helping kids have a fun, productive summer. We love all the young readers we see in the summer, and it's fun to get feedback on what kids have found to read. The real reading junkies are into their 3rd, 4th,10th book of the summer. It can be a challenge coming up with recommendations for kids that read like locusts eat. I'm putting out a quick 5 that have pushed to the top this summer - mostly because we like them!

The Mysterious Benedict Society. Trenton Lee Stewart
Little, Brown/Tingley, $6.99. ISBN 9780316003957.

Scat. Hiaasen, Carl
Knopf, $16.99. ISBN 978-0375-83486-8.

Three Cups of Tea Young Reader’s Edition
. Mortenson, Greg
Penguin, $6.99. ISBN 978-0-14-241412-5

The Penderwicks. Birdsall, Jeanne
Random House, $6.99. ISBN 0375831436.

The Sorceress (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel)Scott,Michael
Delacorte, $17.99. 0385735294

Hopefully that helps someone - some of the kids we see would chew those up and spit them out in under a week! Good for us, good for them!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Gears are Shifting

July is a change month at The Golden Apple. Families are settling in to their summer, teachers are enjoying their break (usually by planning for next year) and for a brief moment, the Golden Apple quiets down. The quiet doesn't last long. First, we're having our carpets cleaned - when do we get a chance? Fourth of July is our only opportunity all year, so we will be closed over the holiday weekend so the carpets can dry. As soon as we reopen on Monday, we start setting up for the invasion. Less than 30 days until waves and waves of teachers arrive to stock their classrooms for next year.
School budgets may be under siege, the state may be broke, but on the first day of school, classrooms will be sanctuaries of hope and promise, and our teachers will make it happen. The Golden Apple is getting ready.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Home from ASTRA

It's Sunday night, and I'm still not quite down to earth after the amazing American Specialty Toy Retailers Association (ASTRA) show in St Paul. The toy business is a business of play, and the ASTRA people set the bar for high energy and excitement. I have a long list of posts highlighting some of the things I did,found and learned this year, stay tuned!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Ghosts of Summers Lost

We've unpacked about 19 bazillion workbooks this week. Math, Reading, Writing (all the parents want to work on writing!) and your general Summer Bridge workbooks of course. It makes for busy days, and much less blog posting. This thought struck me suddenly. What if all those workbooks are extracting a karmic toll? There's a legend that Sarah Winchester was haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. It may come to pass that I will be haunted by the ghosts of Summer idles, ruined by workbooks from the Golden Apple. Terrifying.

Friday, June 5, 2009

TED Talks

If I haven't blogged about TED talks before, I should have. If you are learning junkie like me, the TED talks are pure heaven, once you get passed the American Express ads. I posted about Gever Tulley "5 Dangerous Things For Kids" talk a long time ago, but I also enjoyed Ken Robinson's talk on Education and Creativity. Watch, then come back and discuss!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Maker Faire Report

Yesterday I went to Maker Faire, which did not disappoint. If my head had the capacity for 3 amazing innovations, I found them there. If my head had the capacity for 300 amazing innovations, I could have found them there. Overload came quickly.
The absolute best part of Maker Faire is the focus on kids. The media coverage misses this part, because all the dazzling, mind-blowing, flame-belching machines are the first thing you notice. But if you look around, all you see are kids going nuts. It's a huge playground, and the smart guys have latched on to it.
The Exploratorium had a big spot, Stanford's Kids Tech Program, the Tinkering School, Robotics Clubs, Model Rocket Clubs and dozens of other science outreach programs were putting on a show for kids. This one event probably does more for boosting science enthusiasm in the Bay Area than all other venues combined.
The sponsors of Maker Faire should host a preview day for schools on the Friday before, and invite field trips. Every kid deserves a chance to see this event.
I'm working on putting together some of the video I shot at the Faire, but I was excited to see one of our fun companies, Hape, had a booth that featured Quadrilla, and the the German inventor of the toy was on the floor playing with the kids! I'll post more as I get it put together.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Maker Faire this Weekend

The Golden Apple is very fortunate to be located in a geographic area that teems with creative energy. Our store is about equal distance from Silicon Valley and San Francisco and a stone's throw away from Livermore Labs (though I don't think the Weapons Lab worries about thrown stones anymore). We get our science through the main line around here! This weekend the Bay Area hosts an event called the Maker Faire, which is a huge celebration of many things - Tinkerers, Mad Scientists, Crafters, TechnoGeeks, Steampunkers, DIYers and everyone in between. I have been to this event a couple of times, and it is a great way to get you creative energies dialed up to 11. See you there!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blueberries for Sal

I've eaten a lot of berries this week. It's the season, even if it isn't. Don't berries show up in summer? For Oldtime Storytime this week we're rolling out one of the big guns, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. There's a lot wrong with this story, according to bear experts, and I'm not sure blueberry picking is a familiar activity for local kids, but it's a good separation anxiety yarn, and it makes adults like me nostalgic for a childhood I didn't have either. Join us today at 4:30 - we might even taste some blueberries!

Monday, May 25, 2009

What is an Educational Toy?

I do an occasional guest blog for TDMonthly. This week they asked me to write on the topic: What "educational toy" really means:

It happens very often. A customer comes in (often it is an aunt or uncle) and asks for an "educational toy for a two-year-old". My staff prefers it's not me they ask, because they know this is one of my "buttons". Depending on the length of my fuse, I may or may not spare them the lecture on why there is no such animal as an "educational" toy for a two-year-old. But who wants a lecture, so I show them something that has the alphabet printed on it, or it involves numbers, or colors. That's the reason they came in to my "Educational Store", they were told to get something educational, not to hear me spout.
So what is an educational toy? Our fall back criteria is the old BRIO credo, which formed their core philosophy, before they got lost in the woods. It's a child-centered toy. It doesn't play for the child, the child plays with the toy. It is open-ended and adaptable to all kinds of play. It lacks a built in-story (unlike say a SpongeBob figurine). Now this could be drawn into a flow chart, and applied to every toy, but we spend most of our time flying by the seat of our pants. We strayed from orthodoxy a long time ago, and a few popular items skirt close to the line of "not in the least bit educational". Nonetheless, when a customer is looking for "educational", we have to meet their expectations. They want a toy that "teaches" something. Going back to a visual chart, here's how I would represent an ideal educational toy: a Venn Diagram with three circles. The first circle is what I, as a life long educator and toy buyer would consider an "Educational Toy". The next circle encompasses what a customer with a specific idea of a toy that "teaches something" has in mind. The third circle is what a child thinks is a fun way to spend some time. A toy that can fit in the intersection of all three is an "educational toy" that I would gladly put on my shelves.
With some effort, I can usually convince the above aunt or uncle that a pounding bench is the perfect educational toy for a two year old. It teaches cause and effect, it does nothing if the child doesn't interact with it, and it's pretty fun to wail away at. As kids get older, a broader range of toys that will fit my diagram are available, and I can direct a customer to a toy or game that satisfies everyone involved.
But, you might be thinking, what about that D-Tech Smart Pad that speaks the alphabet in 10 languages and provides both visual and auditory feedback - that must be an educational toy! Oh, don't get me started!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Teacher Appreciation - It's Real!

I slowed down on my posting this last week. My excuse is I was working on building a website (not Golden Apple related but you can check it out here) I was doing it as an exercise, to get my web skills up to date. Learning new things is hard, but what's harder is learning new things without the help of a teacher! I could have saved myself hours of time if I had had someone to give me some guidance, feedback and correction. It isn't something you can get from books, it isn't something available online.
I'm happy to have improved my skills, but I appreciate what teachers do even more than before.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Millions of Cats at Storytime

Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. That's what we're dealing with today at Old-time Storytime. Space is limited!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking for Something Fresh I was willing to carry something fresh that I may look as a man minding business, which I have done too much for a great while to forfeit, and is now so great a burden upon my mind night and day that I do not enjoy myself in the world almost.

Samuel Pepys taught me everything I know about blogging! For the past 5 or so years I have been reading on a mostly daily basis the Diary of Samuel Pepys. Posting Sam Pepys diary as a blog was the brilliant idea of Phil Gyford. The diary was always something you were assigned to read in English Lit, and so at best you skimmed it and forgot it by the end of High School. Reading it as it unfolds is an incredible experience, and gems like his posting today - (excerpt above) reminds me so much of what I am doing with the Facebook, this Blog, Twitter the Enews (and who knows what is coming next) that it is uncanny. Keeping up, and having something new to report does get a bit oppressive. I'm still enjoying myself in the world, and I think Sam was just playing "poor me" for a moment. Check it out if you would like to find out how little has changed in 400 years.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Time for some Blogrolling

Pufferbellies lures the press to their weekly storytime and gets a write-up! YoYoJoes is playing with some very high-end toys. Peapods has some fun with local logs. And they're parking new trucks over at Early Work in Petaluma.
As for the Golden Apple, we're just taking it easy today, it's too hot to do much. I'm almost too lazy to report that we unpacked another batch of Sunny Patch from Melissa and Doug, including a Grub Scouts Sprinkler that would make any hot day worth living!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Starbucks Loss is Your Gain

Starbucks sells coffee. Recently, they announced that they would be selling less coffee by 900 locations. Meanwhile, they are running full page newspaper ads begging us to please buy coffee. Bad economy? Let me put on my small business hat and tell you why Starbucks has been bad for America, and why they deserve what they get with extra foam on top.
What does this have to do with the Golden Apple, you might wonder. We started our business 30 years ago this month. The CEO of Starbucks was still scrubbing out percolators at Peets when we signed our first lease. Over the years we have moved several times, and signed many leases. About fifteen years ago, things changed for small businesses that needed commercial retail space. Suddenly, you were treated to the Starbucks Standard. Starbucks seemed to have the ability to pay any price for any space they wanted. They drove out competitors by outbidding them, and they drove up the rent for all businesses in a center. In addition, some landlords did not want anything to do with small independent businesses. Starbucks, Noah's Bagels, Papyrus, Quiznos, they were desirable, and single location family businesses were outcasts.
Rents went up, especially in high-traffic, downtown locations. Businesses that wanted to be where the action was had to pony up. Now Starbucks is walking away from 900 stores, and downtowns are seeing merchants closing up at rates approaching 50%. Those high rates that were barely affordable when times were good are pulling stores down in these hard times.
The market corrects itself, but that doesn't mean no-one gets hurt. Small business is often a shoestring endeavor, and fast companies like Starbucks can make life hard in ways that might not be apparent. Their loss might be a community gain.
To sum up, click here to learn more about the 350 project, everyone benefits when we support local businesses!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ride Your Bike to the Golden Apple

Yesterday was bike to work day in the SF Bay Area (and elsewhere). It was a nice day, and I rode around the city a little before I headed off, just to see how it was going. Everyone was on a bike! I had to attend a meeting downtown, and since there was no safe street parking, I took my bike up the elevator, down the hall and into the meeting room. The only comments were "Oh, Bike to Work Day". It's a Utopian dream for one day.
As part of Bike to Work Week we are planning a "Bike to the Golden Apple" event on Saturday. We had hoped to build it around our Skuut Balance Bikes, but they are out of stock until June. We have scaled it down, but we are still offering 10% off to anyone arriving by bike, prizes for the kids on bikes, Bike Stories, and Bike decorating. You are welcome to ride your bike to the Golden Apple any day, but roll in on Saturday and say hi! (the image above is from "Duck on a Bike" by David Shannon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What's On the Menu?

Mouse Soup! The only way to make a good mouse soup is to add some stories. Old-time Story-time this week is serving up Arnold Lobel's Mouse Soup, an I Can Read variation of the Arabian Nights. Just you try to tell a funny, interesting story using only Dolch sight words. I'm also starting off with something from Aesop, but I haven't decided which story. Any suggestions?

Previous Post: Jan Brett's Dolch Words

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Children's Book Week

Poetry Month, Teacher Appreciation Week and now it's Children's Book Week (May 11th -May 17th) Here's a link to some of the festivities. I wish I was in the cake decorating business. (Is there a National Cake Decorating Week?) Other than sitting down with a class full of active listeners and knocking their socks off with a good scorcher, I think an appropriate way to celebrate is by taking yourself back - have someone tell you a great story. My choice is E.B. White. His reading of Charlotte's Web is a way to hear a story you think you know, made brand new. Stuart Little is a runner up. I especially like the bitter-sweet ending of SL, it makes you yearn for the days when stories didn't have sequels. Anyway, you can have your Jim Dales and your Meryl Streeps, give me E.B. White's New England intonations and I'm ready curl up in my jammies on the top bunk .

Saturday, May 9, 2009

That's Cute

One of the hurdles I have had to overcome in life is cute-blindness. I'm okay with babies and puppies and things of that nature, but put me in charge of ordering Suzy Zoo classroom decorations and I shut down. Things have improved, I still don't have an eye for cute, but other people at the Golden Apple help me, and I've learned to appreciate "cuteness" as a quality. Crocodile Creek has been bumping up the cuteness on some new lunchbox items to the point where I can register it. These new eco drink bottles are cute.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tweets Don't Fail Me Now!

I'm old. The picture illustrating this post comes from the distant past, my high-school years. For those of you too young to remember; there was a fad that swept the country called CB radio. There is so much explaining required to make CB radio make sense to someone who didn't live through it, I just can't do it. Many sensible people, like my mother, had CB radios installed in their cars, along with giant light saber like antennae bolted to the trunk. All so they could "breaker breaker one-nine" each other as they tootled on down the highway, "driven 55".
Today I registered with Tweeter. Now trust me, I am as hip as the next person. I had "Early Adopter" tattooed on my bicep way before tattoos were cool. But I'm really having trouble distinguishing Twitter from CB radio. There just might not be a there there.
I did find several Tweeters(?) sending haiku - An old pond!/A frog jumps in/The sound of water - which seems like a plot detail from a Kurt Vonnegut story:

Rosewater glanced at the Basho-tron on his desk -
An old pond! A frog jumps in- The sound of water ...
they were playing reruns again.

Other than exchanging haiku, I can't wrap my mind around the value of 140 character communication. The thought of it brings out the Abe Simpson in me.
The point of this post is: you can follow our Golden Apple tweets here! Where our motto is "If you can't say it in 140 characters, then maybe you shouldn't say it at all." QED
(If you need an explanation of the Burt Reynolds image, click here)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Curious George DOES NOT Get a Medal

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were forced to make a last minute substitution at old-time storytime today. Substituting for George was another old stand-by, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Lane Smith and John Scieszka. So far so good, but on polling the audience, it was discovered that over half were not familiar with any story about three little pigs, true or not. This required our brave story teller to do what's called "blind storytelling", or BS-ing. Purely from memory I was forced (much like Homer recounting the Illiad) to recite the Tale of the Three Little Pigs so that my audience could appreciate the wit and clever turns in the retelling by A. Wolf. Despite my forgetting the part about the "hair on my chinny chin chin" and that the second house was made of sticks, not wood, I think I pulled it off. I also failed to kill any pigs, out of sensitivity. TTOTTLP has a much higher death toll. My audience was great, and they forgave my transgressions. Next Wednesday, it's Mouse Soup!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Curious George Gets a Medal

Everything about this story is from another time and place. It's hard to imagine kids relating to a single thing that happens to poor George. But being curious, and following your curiosity where ever it leads, laughing through all the calamities that come with adventuring, who wouldn't deserve a medal? It's on the menu at old-time storytime tomorrow. We'll be giving out medals.

Monday, May 4, 2009

If you can read this...

Then you probably made it out of school without having destroyed your native curiosity! It's Teacher Appreciation week, which causes a hail of mugs much like the one pictured here to shower down on our most under appreciated community workers. We don't sell many "Hallmark" style items at the Golden Apple, it goes back to my mom's day, when she knew from personal experience that the last thing teachers needed were more "I heart teaching" mugs. Gift certificates make nice gifts.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pandemics and Critical Thinking

"The word "Pandemic" seems like a neologism, a useful combination of panic! and epidemic! that serves to scare everyone. A pandemic is an epidemic spread over a wide area, but that's it, no sinister extra meaning. There have been serious pandemics throughout history, but just the label on our current news event has set a panic in motion. The news media goes berserk, schools close, and events (especially ones where kids are attending) are being canceled.
It reminds me that critical thinking skills are the most important skills we can pass on to children. At the Golden Apple, we sometimes call this section of our store the "GATE" section, but really, these books should be prescribed for every child. These skills help everyone keep a level head in a crisis, or even a non-crisis.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day

Today is a big holiday around the world - it seems to pass unnoticed here. April 30/May 1 is Walpurgis Night in northern European countries. May Day is a day of celebrating the coming warm weather, cleaning up the garden and enjoying a picnic. Here in Northern California May 1st brought a rare rain storm, so no picnics today - but I'm giving out virtual rainchecks - treat yourself to a picnic at the first opportunity! Happy May Day

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ahead for the Year!

It might annoy you to know, but I have now written more posts this year than I wrote all of last year. So quantity is up... now, about the quality...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Diffendoofer Day

Standardized testing starts at many local schools today. Test preparation is good business for the Golden Apple, that doesn't mean we have to like it. We remember when the dubious end didn't justify the means in education. So at the Golden Apple we say "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day" and celebrate the Seuss/Prelutsky book that shows what can happen when standardization trumps creativity:

His teacher, Miss Bonkers, is "as bouncy as a flea,/I'm not certain what she teaches,/But I'm glad she teaches me." Diffendoofer School is a happy place, full of energetic teachers and eager students, all joyfully working in unorthodox ways on the next unlikely assignment. The only sourpuss in the building is the principal, Mr. Lowe, who announces the message he fears most -- standardized testing for the entire school. Failure will mean that the Diffendoofer School will close and all students will go to the miserable Flobbertown, where gray monotony abounds. Miss Bonkers assures the students that all will go well, and it does, for "we've taught you how to think." When the test results confirm her belief, Diffendoofer Day is declared by Mr. Lowe, and the children celebrate with, you guessed it, a pizza party!

Celebrate your ability to think!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Hole is to Dig

Tomorrow is Old Time Storytime again. I'm really looking forward to it. Afternoon storytime feels more right, and I get to read stories I like, and I know the kids will like, because 40 million kids have already liked them. Up next: A Hole is to Dig" by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jan Brett

I was adding Sight Word materials to our online store last night when I came across Jan Brett's website. Jan has always been a great resource for parents, teachers, and bookstores - I think the enthusiasm that shines through in her books and illustrations radiates in every direction. She likes to share. I found that Jan has illustrated some pages of the basic dolch words, and provides them as pdfs for downloading. I wish these were something we could offer in the store, but they are here for free, so have at them.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Make Your Brain Hurt

Set is one of those stealth "education" games a teacher loves. It's also a game that it helps to have a kid around to explain to you. While the name Set describes the play, it also describes the way my brain feels when I play - as in "Set" in concrete. I won't try to explain how to play here, but it's easy and devilish hard at the same time. We sell the card game and the new family game Set Cubed. The makers of Set have a daily challenge on their site - you can also test your time against others at DEBlog where I lifted this nifty badge - I didn't win it mind you, it's merely for illustration purposes!