50 years later, S.W. Randall still bringing smiles
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50 years later, S.W. Randall still bringing smiles

Iconic Pittsburgh store celebrates golden milestone

Jack Cohen opened S.W. Randall 50 years ago on Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill. He's added stores in Downtown Pittsburgh and Shadyside. Photo by David Rullo
Jack Cohen opened S.W. Randall 50 years ago on Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill. He's added stores in Downtown Pittsburgh and Shadyside. Photo by David Rullo

As you approach S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes on Smithfield Street downtown, you are greeted by a large display in the front window comprised of Santa Claus figures, nutcrackers and a model train. Holiday music can be heard playing on speakers as you enter the store.

Cross the doorway and you see glass cases filled with toys and gifts that would be right at home in any North Pole or Santa’s workshop model: stuffed animals, toy trains, creches and small Christmas trees complete with 3-D ornaments requiring cardboard glasses to view in their full splendor.

Asked if he carries any Chanukah items, owner Jack Cohen said he has a few dreidels on hand but nothing more.

Despite the store’s emphasis on that other winter holiday, Cohen grew up as a part of Squirrel Hill’s Jewish community, where he attended Congregation Beth Shalom.

So how does a nice Jewish kid end up running a toy store that looks like it was created as a location for a Hallmark Channel Countdown to Christmas Movie Marathon selection?

“I listen to my customers,” Cohen said. “If I get enough requests, I order something. It’s the only way I know.”

Because of Cohen’s business acumen, his toy store — celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — now has three locations. The first one, on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, opened in 1970; the downtown location opened eight years later, and his Shadyside store opened in 1988. A fourth location in Station Square closed in 2007.

Along the way, Cohen outlasted chain stores like Toys R Us and Children’s Palace and managed to maintain his relevance in spite of the internet and big box stores fighting for space in the retail toy landscape.

Cohen did not begin his career with toys in mind. At the University of Pittsburgh, he studied engineering and worked in that field for one year.

“I hated it,” he said. “I just hated being an engineer. I told my wife we had to figure out something else.”

Cohen’s next gig, selling frozen treats while driving an ice cream truck, had him earning $100 a day, 15 cents at a time. As winter approached, he knew he needed to do something else to provide for his wife, Linda, and their four children.

Then an empty storefront caught Cohen’s and his wife’s attention, and they convinced the property owner to lease them the space. The pair didn’t need to look far for inspiration when deciding what they would sell.

“My wife could never find anything for the kids,” Cohen said. “She was always looking for something for their birthdays.”

In searching for a name for his new business, Cohen cast aside possibilities like “Jack’s Box” or “Jack’s Toys.” Instead, he wanted something that sounded dignified. So he created a tribute to his children: Sherry, Stacy, Wendy and Randall (which is his son James’ middle name).

S.W. Randall stores have been able to maintain a robust business, despite COVID-19 and changing retail tastes, in part because of Cohen’s decision to stick with classic toys and gifts that are hard to find at other retailers, he said. Board games, puzzles, action figures, dress-up costumes, electric trains, ceramic houses and animals that are warmed in the microwave and cuddled by children at night fill his stores.

When Toys R Us closed, Cohen expected to see an increase in business, but that didn’t happen. The lesson, he said, was “That’s not our customer.”

The type of person likely to shop at a big box or chain store in the suburbs is most likely looking for the latest fad to satisfy their child, he said, whereas he sells “the specialty stuff.”

Included among his inventory are some items that might seem out of place at other toy stores, but seem to fit in perfectly as S.W. Randall, including Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirts, face masks and a few items in support of both presidential candidates (although now the election is over, a sign tells customers Trump products are 50% off).

His Shadyside and Squirrel Hill stores are neighborhood locations, Cohen said, supported by the communities where they are located. The downtown location is frequented by office workers.

Cohen understands he isn’t simply selling toys but is also creating good feelings and memories.

“People love coming into the store,” he said. “They come in and it makes them feel good. The office workers, if they are having a bad day at work, they would come in and it would cheer them up just to walk into the store. It’s just amazing.”

After 50 years in the toy business, Cohen is now selling toys to the second and third generations of his original customers.
“A lot of parents come in now and they say, ‘I grew up here.’ It’s nice to hear that.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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