Child's Play

The success of Lottie and Howard Hirsch's online toy business in Owings Mills seems to have taken them by surprise.

Inspirations: Home


It was 1988, and Lottie Hirsch faced a familiar dilemma - she couldn't find the right care for her newborn daughter after maternity leave. So she decided to quit her job and sell a few children's videos and other odds and ends out of her Reisterstown home.

A few years later, her husband, Howard Hirsch, thought he'd help out by listing some items on a fledgling network called the World Wide Web.

So began, which bills itself as one of the longest-running Internet toy stores. After the rise and fall of several larger online toy retailers, Live and Learn has persisted with a skeleton, mostly-family crew and an Owings Mills warehouse stocked with about 3,000 toys.

This is not the place for the latest "hot toy." The Internet visitor will find classics - vanilla-scented Corolle dolls, Bristle Blocks, the detective game CLUE, Mad Libs, pounding pegs, wooden puzzles, dress-up games and a large, eclectic selection of toys inspired by the Madeline storybooks.

Still, from October through Christmas, the Hirschs - helped by a couple of employees and their two daughters - work 10 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, taking off only for a family Halloween party and Thanksgiving. They'll make 40 percent of their yearly sales during that time.

When they formally launched a Web site in 1995, the Hirschs planned to keep running the business out of their house. But shoppers from every state - and, eventually, from around the globe - were finding them.

"All of a sudden, the phone was ringing off the hook," Howard Hirsch said. "That's when we really saw we had something here."

Marketing is largely word-of-mouth.

Several years ago, for example, a parent linked the Live and Learn site to a message board for people who had adopted children from China. Orders skyrocketed, and now Asian Corolle dolls are a specialty.

When Dr. Phil devoted a segment of his show to getting children out of diapers, customers clamored for a doll that could use the potty.

Live and Learn isn't giant - sales are expected to be just shy of $500,000 this year, compared with the net $366 million recorded in 2004 - and probably will never be. Though their business is strictly e-tail, the Hirschs try to add a personal touch.

They might spend many minutes on the phone with a customer who wants to know whether a doll's eyes are teal or turquoise, and whether the length and color of her hair will match her new owner's. They'll arrange a time for local customers to pick up their toys and avoid a shipping charge.

While Live and Learn toys aren't trendy, some items get hot on their own. A set for playing school and a play shaving kit have been selling briskly this season. Howard Hirsch thinks it's because of his product write-ups, in which he tells stories of how he or his children experienced a certain toy. He and his father used a similar kit so they could "shave" together when Hirsch was a boy.

"It was our special time together," Hirsch writes on the site.

"And now, your little boy can also have the same lasting memories thanks to our pretend Shave And Play Kit!"

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