Serious Deals | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Serious Deals 

Cut Rate Toys has some of the best bargains in town--but keep your kid's grubby mits off the merchandise!

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There are seven signs placed around the wire bin holding the plastic bouncing balls. Two state the price--$1.99. The other five warn customers not to bounce the balls.

Such warnings aren't unusual in this toy store. A sign outside declares that no one under 18 is allowed in unless accompanied by a parent. Not exactly your warm and fuzzy interactive toy store? Well, it's not meant to be. The owners of Cut Rate Toys in Edgebrook have been in the business for almost 50 years, and they know their trade. They want to attract parents who buy, not kids who play.

That message has been delivered countless times over the years, and financial success has followed. Longtime owner Marvin Hecht still enjoys hearing that he made a lasting impression. "Guys come in here now and say, 'Last time I saw you you threw me out of the place because I came in without my mother.'" But coming in with your parents didn't grant you any special privileges. In case customers forgot, Hecht was only too happy to remind them with his famous storewide announcements: "Keep your children's hands off the toys or get 'em out of the store!"

Perhaps it would help to know that Hecht's first job out of college was as a minor-league baseball umpire in Oklahoma. Players gave him a tough time, and he wasn't afraid to show them who was boss. "If they gave me a lot of trouble on strike two they better be swinging on the next pitch....I had the last word. I know that."

The $250 a month Hecht was paid to call games was great money in the early 50s. But in the off-season he had nothing to do. So he agreed to work at his cousin's "high-class toy store" at 677 N. Michigan. The job was only supposed to last a few months, but he met a girl. Renee, an elementary school teacher, was the sister of the store's accountant. On their first date Hecht arranged to take her to an expensive restaurant downtown. Before you can even ask he'll tell you that dinner set him back three dollars. Renee says she wasn't impressed, but "[we] started going out, and before you knew it we were married in five months."

Just before Christmas 1954, Hecht left baseball and his cousin's place behind to open a toy store of his own on Sherman Avenue in Evanston. Business was bad, but Renee had kept her job. For the first few years, he says, "we'd have starved to death without her income." Then he drove past an empty storefront at Devon and Western, and it occurred to him that discounting was the way to go. "We figured we'd shoot the works," he says. "We were lost anyway." He signed a two-month lease and opened up shop just before Christmas 1956, while Renee helped keep the Evanston store going.

They drew people in that first Christmas by cutting their profit margins. It worked. "The place took off right from the first day," says Hecht. "We made quite a bit that first year." Then he started scouting around for bargains, calling manufacturers to see if they wanted to sell him items they were discontinuing. In 1958 the Hechts closed down the Evanston store.

By the late 60s companies like Mattel, Milton Bradley, and Hasbro were calling Hecht regularly with closeouts. Cut Rate Toys became known for their full-page ads in the Tribune, complete with coupons, listing bargain prices for brand-name toys like Lego and Barbie. They still run almost every week; a recent ad listed the VTech Precomputer Unlimited at $19.99 ("limit one with coupon")--100 dollars cheaper than the suggested retail price. Hecht bought just about everything VTech had--at closeout prices--when they moved their plant from Glenview to the west coast.

Recessions haven't hurt the Hechts much. Last Christmas, Hecht says, sales were up 30 percent over the previous year--"the biggest surge in over 30 years." He says people drove from as far away as Joliet to get a deal. "Tough times help a business like this. People feel they have to save. Sometimes they sacrifice convenience for price."

"You can't beat this," says Sally Kirkpatrick, who drives in from Grayslake to shop at Cut Rate. "Playmobil and Lego don't go on sale. Here they're on sale." Plus, notes shopper Anne Riddick, "It's a nice atmosphere. You don't have a lot of kids running around."

Another draw is the three-for-a-dollar section. (Back in the old days it was four for a dollar.) Here kids, properly chaperoned, can root around in cardboard boxes for soap bubbles, stickers, and punching balls. They'll also find yo-yos, jump ropes, and Pokemon toys. Yes, it's really OK to touch them--Hecht has become more laid-back over the years.

But he hasn't slowed down much. He and Renee still work incredibly long hours. "There's no finesse involved in what we do. If we each work 96 hours a week we're a gold mine. If we work 95 hours a week we go broke." Renee rolls her eyes at the exaggeration, but Hecht hasn't missed a day in 60 years.

He actually tried to retire in 1991, but it didn't stick. Cut Rate Toys closed, then reopened a year later after the Hechts got an offer they couldn't refuse--ten cents on the dollar of the asking price--on a space at Devon and Central. Business at the new location has been good. Maybe too good, says Hecht: "I'm here, I'm aggravated. When I'm at home I say, gee, I better get down there." In January 2001 they closed their doors again, but Hecht was back after two months. Officially it was his daughter, Jackie, who reopened the business after buying it from her father. But everyone knows Hecht is still in charge.

This year Hecht is 75. Renee is 73. "I've been at it 49 years now. Forty-nine more and I'll take an early retirement," he says.

Renee laughs in response and says, "I don't know. I think we're getting close. It's been a long time." After all, selling toys wasn't her chosen profession. "I just happened to fall into it," she says. Hecht quickly adds, "She married the wrong guy."

Maybe. But you have to admire a man who knows a sweetheart deal when he sees one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Dostatni.

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