A young Park Slope couple, Courtney and Avi, had a very early surprise — their daughter Charley was born 15 weeks early.
In order to make sure their daughter had no developmental delays or challenges, they dedicated much of their time researching and found how toys and décor — especially ones that focus on developing the imagination and challenging a kid’s mind — can stimulate growth.
“Charley was born three-and-a-half-months early, so we spent a lot of time in the hospital — and for five-and-a-half months we researched child development,” said Courtney Ebner, who co-owns the soon-to-open toyshop, Norman & Jules on Seventh Avenue, with her husband Avi Kravitz. “She had a lot of early intervention therapy and we learned how important it is to provide certain kinds of toys and even art to create an environment that helps them learn and expand their imagination at an early age.”
Kravitz said that they couldn’t find these kinds of toys and nursery room decorations in the neighborhood, so they decided to build a store.
“But, if we were going to do something with toys, we decided to be responsible about it,” Kravitz said. “It seemed crazy to us that there was so much waste in the toy industry. Then we found that there are so many entrepreneurial toymakers, artisans and artists that are creating all these handmade toys and are being responsible socially and environmentally.”
Norman & Jules will open at the end of September and will sell handcrafted toys and imaginative décor that are supposed to, as Kravitz said, “enable children to explore and develop through creative play.”
Most of their products, which are from 70 different companies, are handmade with sustainable materials by artisans and small, local and international brands.
It is important to the husband and wife, who also co-own Casa Ventura with Jose Ventura and his wife Devonna Middeleer, that the items they sell come from companies that are fair to its employees and do not waste materials while making toys.
“All of the toymakers share a mission of being both socially and environmentally conscious,” Kravitz said, explaining that most of the toys they sell do not come in packaging, or have very little and are made with recycled materials.
To speak to their local-and-artsy-vibe, 10 of the brands they sell are locally based, 15 are independent artists and artisans who sell their products online, via Etsy.
Although some toys are made as far away from Park Slope as Portland, Washington and even Kenya, 38 of them come from mom-and-pop-shops and five are members of the Fair Trade Federation, which give their employees medical care and even pay for their college tuition.
The shop’s name, Norman & Jules, is a nod to the duo’s grandparents. Norman was Kravitz’s grandfather and Jules was Ebner’s grandfather.
“It has been our dream since we’ve been together to own a retail store and we’ve had the name for a long time,” Ebner said, explaining that the idea for a toy store did not come to them until the birth of their daughter. “Our grandfathers are very special to us, so we wanted to pay tribute to them.”
Ebner and Kravitz said that they have accomplished one of their goals: to make Norman & Jules environmentally and socially conscious, boasting 90 to 95 percent of their shop is environmentally sound and none their vendors produce toys in sweatshops.
But their main objective is to sell toys that will help kids in the community get a jump-start in learning.
“Imagination and development is important to us,” Kravitz explained, “what we really want to do is to introduce art to kids at an early age.”
Many of the toys are “open-ended toys,” which means they do not have one use. One toy they will sell is called “The Stacker,” a colored stacking block set, which can be used from zero to seven years old. First, it’s used just for stacking, then used to match colors, and then later when they are even older, used to make buildings.
“Our products are not ever-lasting, but they have years worth of stimulating,” Ebner said.
And Kravitz finished: “For lack of a better word, our toys are heirloom-quality.”
A special toy line, one that has never been in stores until Norman & Jules opens, is called “Couchie.” Made by a mother in Portland who has a Master’s degree in architecture and fibers, Couchie is a set of small plush toys, a splice between stuffed animals and pillows, that come in the shape of monsters, creatures and animals. They are tactile toys that children can play with and feel a range of different textures and fibers to stimulate their senses.
“All of the toys are meant to spark their creativity and imagination. It is important in our lives, I was exposed to art at an early age and it allowed my mind to go to magical places,” Ebner said. “I think with all the TV, the iPads and iPhones it is really important to remember how we were stimulated as children.”
Kravitz and Ebner, who met at the gym and got married in May 2009, have lived in Park Slope for most of their adulthood. Kravitz has been here since 2001 and Ebner since 1997. After dropping out of the corporate world as an art director, Kravitz said they are finally accomplishing their “dream endeavor.”
“This is our family’s future; we didn’t buy a shop to have someone else run it for us. We are gong to be running the store everyday,” Kravitz said.
Courtney, who will still keep her career in marketing, will be juggling two jobs, but said opening a store in their neighborhood is their way of giving back.
“We love this community and we want to be a part of it as business owners,” Ebner said, who admitted Kravitz is the entrepreneur in the family but has inspired her to take the leap in starting their own venture. “We also want Charley to know that she doesn’t have to conform and should take risks in her life.”