Spring 1998

Building Dreams at The Construction Site

The Construction Site is a small store, tucked between a curtain shop and a furniture store on Moody Street in Waltham, Mass. The customers tend to be small, too - and are often clad in Velcro sneakers and OshKosh overalls. Small, but serious. They walk in, knowing exactly what they want, and express great relief at having found - at last - a supplier with the inventory and the technical knowledge to meet their exacting demands.

"We get a lot of great kids," says owner Steve Delfino, who earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics at WPI in 1985. "They're only, like, this big" [he gestures at hip height], but they're really articulate. They know every Lego set, and they'll tell you everything about what they've built. The kind of kids who like to build things tend to be very creative, and their enthusiasm is great."

From the moment Delfino and co-owner Crispin Richey, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, opened their doors in September 1997, children have been nothing less than ecstatic upon entering the cheery, colorful store. Floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with bright boxes in primary colors cover every inch of the walls. Elaborate creatures - some with thousands of pieces - are poised among the merchandise. A 5-foot-tall, remote-controlled Robotix robot named Coco guards the door, and Annette, a plump infant made of Lego bricks - including her bottle - nestles on a high perch. Behind the cash register, a solar-powered Ferris wheel made of K'Nex spins gaily.

"The Construction Site philosophy is that one can never be too old to play with any of these toys. This may be especially true for engineers."

The Construction Site toys have to be fun, of high quality, and made up of pieces that can be assembled and reassembled in different ways. A model airplane would not qualify, since there is only one way to put it together, and once it is glued together, it can't be disassembled and built again. The store's concept appears to be unique, according to the owners and their suppliers. Even the Lego Group was taken aback by the store's initial order.

"They knew we were a small toy store, just starting up," Delfino says, "and they were startled to see such a big order. It took them a while to realize we were a small toy store carrying their entire line!" Three months after opening, The Construction Site placed in Lego's 300 top-selling independent stores. "I think they know us now," Delfino smiles.

Almost a quarter of the store - 36 feet of display space - is devoted to Lego sets, ranging from simple stacking toys for infants, to vehicles with rack-and-pinion steering, to kits that involve pneumatics and even fiber optics. There are also sections devoted to robotics, geometrics, toddler toys, and classics (such as wooden blocks in a choice of six stocks, from basic pine to high-end maple) and erector sets. Visitors can try out display sets at child-sized play tables.

Unlike regular toy stores, which might carry only a few of the most common sets, The Construction Site stocks the full line from selected manufacturers, including specialized accessories and add-ons, extra pieces, storage units, and new or hard-to-find sets for the true aficionado. It also carries large sets designed for group play, which have been purchased by local day care centers and the Waltham public schools.

Corollary: LEGO--Not just for kids

Although many of the toys specify a suggested age range, The Construction Site philosophy is that one can never be too old to play with any of these toys. This may be especially true for engineers. Delfino enjoys Geoshapes, a connecting set that relates to his Major Qualifying Project on graph theory. He sent a similar toy to a WPI friend who wrote that it rekindled his passion for tensegrity structures and inspired a desire to build a geodesic dome. Actually, toy sales to adults were factored into Delfino and Richey's business plan.

Some grown-up customers of The Construction Site are open and proud, while others try to cover up the fact that they are buying for themselves. "We have some hard-core Lego fans," Delfino acknowledges. "We recently had this 38-year-old woman who piled up a large purchase at the register and happily told us it was a birthday present for herself." He knows of some households where there are strict rules about "Mommy's Legos." Although they don't have figures for adult sales, their clientele includes engineers, architects and software designers from many well-known high-tech companies around Route 128. The store's Internet mailing list has many e-mail addresses that end with @mit.edu.

Richey's passion for construction toys began in childhood, but Delfino didn't get hooked until he was at WPI. "I think my first exposure was a Lego sample set that came in a cereal box or a McDonald's Happy Meal," he says. He didn't have much money for toys in his student days, but once he graduated and had a salary, his collection took off. Today his house has a Lego room, with an inventory of some 60,000 pieces, organized by color. It took several trips with a borrowed pick-up truck to move the collection to its present location.

In fact, it was during a trip to LegoLand in Windsor, England, that the idea for the store took form. After two years of planning and securing funding, The Construction Site went into action, with Richey manning the register full time, and Delfino, who works as an actuary at Arbella Mutual in Quincy, working in the store nights and weekends. Business has been steady since the Christmas season (which typically accounts for 40 percent of sales), and the owners are pleased to see customers coming from great distances. The location attracts evening browsers from Moody Street's "Restaurant Row," and the store's best advertising is word-of-mouth. A network of female construction workers, delighted with the concept, has been faxing the store's ad around town.

The store's motto, "Construction Toys for Girls and Boys," is meant to send a message; girls are not just in there for the sake of cadence. An estimated 40 percent of customers are girls. Delfino and Richey are frustrated when parents look around at their wares and ask, "Is there a toy store for girls anywhere near here?" Some toy companies are progressive in marketing equally to both genders, they note, but others perpetuate stereotypes with separate catalogs for boys and girls.

Richey, who bears the brunt of the store's long hours, says that although the venture has been more work than he could have imagined, it has brought much joy. "It seems like you're going and going and going all week, and you're so busy that you think you're not enjoying it because you're constantly working. Then, on Sunday at six o'clock, when the store closes, you look back and you say, 'Wow! That was fun.'"

Joan Killough-Miller

The Construction Site is located at 284 Moody Street in Waltham, Mass. For directions, store hours, product descriptions and fun links, visit the store's Web site: www.constructiontoys.com. The site features fabulous creations from The Construction Site's Builder's Expositions - monthly events that bring together kids and adults to showcase projects on designated themes, such as animals and undersea adventures.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:52 EDT 1999