Baltimore-Area Online Toy Store Was A Web Pioneer

By Lorraine Mirabella
The Baltimore Sun.


When Lottie and Howie Hirsch started selling toys online, before there was a “World Wide Web,” toy industry people laughed at the strange notion.

More than two decades later, online toy sales are booming for retail giants Amazon, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and others. And though some much bigger toy websites have disappeared, Live And Learn Toys, which started in the Hirsches’ kitchen in 1988 and is based in suburban Baltimore, is in the throes of yet another holiday season.

“We love what we do,” said Lottie Hirsch, company president, surrounded at the company’s warehouse by shelves of Madeline, Raggedy Ann, Corolle and other dolls, Jack-in-the-boxes, Disney plush characters, puzzles, crafts and most of the board games kids’ parents and grandparents played. “Look around. How could you not love this?”

It’s not easy for a mom-and-pop online toy business these days. Live And Learn bills itself as “The World’s Oldest Online Toy Store” and specializes in traditional toys. But increasingly fierce online competition has cut into business; a small enterprise can’t compete with Amazon-sized advertising budgets; and the couple and one employee must do it all: manage inventory, process orders, pull merchandise and pack and ship.

For the first time, the owners are tapping a new revenue stream and opening the warehouse to shoppers. When customers arrive _ some attracted by a handmade sign on the road, one of the owners drops everything to help.

The toys are “educational but fun, classic,” Hirsch said. “They’re all vetted by us. You’re not going to see batteries and things that light up and flash.”

Hirsch, who left a job as a computer programmer with the Social Security Administration to raise her daughters, clearly loves interacting with customers, even if just by phone or email. She was recently on the phone with a woman who she feared had ordered the wrong size doll clothing.

Years ago, she sold mainly at festivals and bazaars and said her husband first thought to post items on the electronic bulletin board systems that predated the Internet as we know it. At toy industry shows, some people were perplexed by the lack of a physical store.

“You think you can sell toys on the computer?” Howie Hirsch recalled being asked.

By 1996, the company had bought the Internet domain and sales took off. The store ships worldwide, having delivered to every continent but Antarctica.
Lottie Hirsch
Age: 60
Title: President, Live And Learn Inc.
Birthplace: Queens, N.Y.
Residence: Reisterstown, Md.
Family: Married for 37 years to husband and business partner, Howie Hirsch; two daughters
Education: Bachelor of Arts from State University College at Buffalo
Previous job: Computer programmer, Social Security Administration
Hobbies/interests: Loves the beach and seashells, reading, TV, mahjong and bike riding

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