Owner Paul Sahagian at Learning Express/ Credit: Needham Observer

On any given weekend, frantic parents on their way to drop their children off at birthday parties stop at Learning Express for that special — albeit last minute — gift. Now, with the holidays in full swing, the store is in the height of its busiest time of year. 

While many small, independent stores have folded over the years, unable to keep up with online options, Needham’s toy store continues to thrive. Paul Sahagian, Learning Express owner for more than 30 years, said there are a few things that set it apart. 

“If you come in, you spend 30 minutes and you see everything, which we will always have over the internet,” said Sahagian. “We wrap and you leave in five minutes. We will always have that, so we will always be here.” 

The other key difference between Learning Express and larger box or online stores is the highly personalized service. Sahagian knows the popular toys and makes sure the store is stocked, which ensures customers shop there first and come back in the future. And if he doesn’t happen to have an item on hand, he will look into getting it. 

It hasn’t all been easy, though, Sahagian said. Over the years there have been ebbs and flows, with 2020 being the worst year on record. 

“We go up and down,” he said. “We’ll go with the trends. If there’s a trend, we’re up that year. [It’s usually] steady, then there’s a bump if we get something good. It’s been like that since it opened, whether we have internet or not.” 

Some of the store’s best years were a result of hit toys: Beanie Babies in the late ‘90s, Webkins, slime, Squishmellows, and of course the Rainbow Loom. 

“This guy with his daughter had a booth at a show,” said Sahagian. “The store owner saw it, ordered it, showed it to people, and sold it. Then he emailed all the Learning Express stores, and they ordered them.” Learning Express had the exclusive on the Rainbow Loom and was getting them in by the truckload. “It was an unbelievable year that year. And it wasn’t a trend that someone else started.” 

Outside of the peaks, Sahagian said his consistent best sellers are slime, Squishmellows, Legos, Pokemon cards and sports cards. “And people love the wrapping.” This year there is no new hot item, but he said Squishmellows and slime are still the “it” gifts. 

“I love selling the toys,” said Sahagian. “When kids come in and say, ‘Oh my goodness! And the parents smile behind them — that’s the best.”

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