In the fantastical toyscape known as Jazams, there is something to discover in literally every nook, cranny, and crevice. From the moment you walk through the doors of its Palmer Square East location, the sense dawns that the place is a living, breathing organism where wonderful things happen all the time: A console of plush welcomes you, a riot of rainbows and clouds, dogs and narwhals, pineapples and avocados with pits. Finely detailed figurine owls, pandas, fairies, and wizards beckon from a back corner. Board games with names like Password, Zingo, Astro Trash, Catan, and (hilariously) Oh My God, Stacy are stacked to the ceiling. Coloring books and pencils, stickers, and craft kits await industrious hands. Row after row of vibrantly colored books whisper their stories to curious readers. And in the low rafters, among handmade wooden ride-on toys and a pair of dog-size shepherds, the colorfully illuminated letters spell out the credo of the place: Play & Read.
The Jazams je ne sais quoi seems to be a confluence of kaleidoscopic eye-candy appeal; a vast yet superlatively curated selection of products; displays that make you want to touch, hold, and play; and a gleefully knowledgeable staff (a.k.a. the Jazamily) led by owners Joanne Farrugia and Dean Smith. And of course, there’s a touch of the indescribable, too. To the keen observer, Farrugia and Smith seem to be a pair of magical unicorns in a time when magical unicorns are in short supply.
“I like to think of myself as Mary Poppins,” Farrugia says, with a laugh. Standing next to a life-size Hansa stuffed giraffe, she has just related a story about how she once managed to entice the PigPen Theatre Co. to play Jazams’s annual Summer Block Party event—at half its usual rate—with nothing more than genuine enthusiasm for their music and the promise of a homecooked meal. The group agreed.
“There are lots of those kinds of moments,” Smith, Joanne’s partner in business and in life, says. “I’m usually the one saying, ‘No, Mary Poppins.’ But this is what it’s always like, and this is what made me fall in love with her, like, 10 times as much.”
“I wish I were Mary Poppins,” Farrugia adds, a little dreamily. “To be floating down from the sky into a group of children? I would love that. That would be my happy place.”
The story of how Jazams came to be goes like this: Born in Brooklyn, Farrugia moved to Hopewell when she was a year old. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool resident of the area: She went to Hopewell Elementary School, Timberlane, and Hopewell High School. Her aunt was Carol “Chubby” Montello of Hopewell’s Rose & Chubby’s (now Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette, which is run by Farrugia’s sisters). She’s had the same mechanic, Joe Nosker from Car Depot, since she was 17 (she actually has him on speed dial). As a teenager, she scooped ice cream at Thomas Sweet. She went to Rutgers and Mercer County, with aspirations of becoming a teacher, but school was a challenge for her, and she ended up dropping out. She was a massage therapist in New York City, albeit briefly. She’s lived in Pennington, in Stockton, in Lambertville, and currently she’s a four-minute walk from downtown Princeton, in the home she shares with Smith and their 12-year-old son, Felix.
Smith, on the other hand, grew up everywhere. “Wilmington, Delaware, until I was 9; and then Las Vegas for two years; and then Downingtown, Pennsylvania, until I was 18. I lived in California every summer from the time I was nine until I was 18. Then I came back and lived in West Chester, Pennsylvania, went to school there; moved to just outside of Philadelphia, and was there for a decade. I came to New Jersey originally doing consulting work, started farming, and then I met Joanne.”
That was 2004, after Farrugia had just closed Jazams’s Montgomery location, what had been the first shop in her mini toy empire. She had opened four stores in rapid succession: Montgomery, in 1996; Hillsborough, in 1997 (along with a good friend, Nomad Pizza’s Stalin Bedon); and Pennington, in September 1999. She’d always wanted to be in downtown Princeton, and so came to Palmer Square in May 2000. She soon found herself working 75 hours a week, started importing and distributing a toy line, and was about to be named president of her trade association. Life, in a word, was “nutty.”
“I had a lot of balls in the air. I called my sister and I was melting down,” Farrugia says. “She said, ‘You love Princeton, close your slowest store.’ So I closed Hillsborough, and then soon after I closed Montgomery.”
During the holiday shopping rush, Farrugia would bring in off-season farmers to help wrap and ring. Smith, who was an organic farmer, arrived at the store in November 2004. Over the course of the next few years, Farrugia and Smith became a couple, had Felix, and moved Jazams from its original Hulfish Street location to its current spot on Palmer Square East, a store they took great joy in building together. And then, as Farrugia says, “the sky fell”: the economy crashed. Within six weeks, Farrugia and Smith saw the sales in the Pennington store decline by more than 40 percent. They made the difficult decision to close Pennington, and turned their full focus on the Princeton shop.
After the 2008 crisis, adding a second location had always been a discussion for a rainy day; that is until Farrugia got a call from someone in Lahaska, Pennsylvania, inquiring if she would like to see retail space in Peddler’s Village. To Farrugia, opening a second store also meant realizing her dream of owning a building. Turns out, the space was exactly what they were looking for: The store was beautiful and it had a 3,500-square-foot basement perfect for inventory storage. At the time, they had a manager on staff, Shannon Leedy, who wanted to run her own store. Leedy had worked at Jazams since she was 16, and was “a total superstar,” Farrugia says. After “counting strollers” and carefully considering the shopper dynamic and traffic, and meeting with Leedy, Farrugia and Smith made the second-store plunge. Today, Leedy happily runs the Lahaska outpost.
This is yet another element of that mystical Jazams juju: a fierce and reciprocated loyalty and glass-half-full optimism among the staff and the owners. According to the pair, there is no science to how they hire; it’s based purely on gut instinct, heart, soul, and what’s called “the paper-bag test.”
“Our application is a brown paper bag,” Farrugia says “When you come in to apply for a job, we give you a blank brown paper bag, and you have to transform it into something. You can staple your résumé if that’s all you want to do. You get to decide. If you’re keen on being creative, you will embrace that application and do something really spectacular.”
“It’s also a vehicle for conversation in an interview,” Smith adds. “[Most] of the time, it’s an amazing way for somebody to have an opening to be expositive about who they are and what they think. It’s awesome the things you learn about folks through that process.”
Creating opportunities for connection with young people who enter the store in search of a job is yet another way the pair creates experiences that support the community at large. Farrugia refers to herself as “a perpetual mother to teens,” and believes the ability she has to reach these teenagers through the store is a huge part of what Jazams is all about.
“We’ve had kids who could not speak for months at a time when they first started,” Smith says. “And then all of a sudden there’s an opening when they found comfort, and by the time those kids went off to college, they were some of our most loved and prized employees. So Jazams is a safe space for these kids who don’t necessarily fit in.”
An atmosphere of conversation, comfort, and inclusion is the energy Farrugia and Smith have manifested in their Maclean Street home, as well. So what do they love, exactly, about their neighborhood? “Everything,” Farrugia says. They moved in just shy of Felix’s third birthday, and within a month they knew basically everyone on the street. They’d found a place where everyone knew their names, and that suited them just fine. Smith’s mother even lives up the block.
“We have one car,” Farrugia says. “And what is so special about where we live is we can walk almost everywhere. And not just for a stroll—to get veggies at the farmers market, milkshakes for Felix, coffee for Dean, the occasional movie, and oh so much live music, most of it free. I even audited a class at Princeton University, which is college only better because you don’t get a grade!”
Like the store, the house is wonderfully warm, thoughtfully designed, and remarkably (and beautifully) curated for two people who own a toy store and have a child. Along with their friends, builder George Akers of Material Design Build LLC, and architect Steven S. Cohen (who also played a role in designing the Jazams space), Farrugia and Smith took on a significant renovation of their home, which included increasing the efficiencies of the original part of the 1880s-era house, and improving and expanding on the newer part of the home, including a new light-filled kitchen and fully appointed master bathroom. The traditional-style house also is peppered with interesting objects you want to move closer to and investigate. To wit, the bar area between the kitchen and the dining room was built purely for that reason: to house small objects of play, from a bowl full of tops to a colored-pencil dispenser to a gloggomobil (a wooden musical instrument).
“When you walk in our house, there’s a sign that Felix made us put up that says, ‘No phones,’” Farrugia says. “So when we designed the bar, we had the idea to put all of our really fun toys [on it]. What’s interesting is when children, and adults, come to the house, they stand at the bar as if it were a bar and they just play.”
“[The toys are] a bridge between young and old,” Smith adds. “That’s something I think is so important, and that we’re losing a bit of, as well. And so the small objects of play create that space.”
But the real pièce de résistance is Felix’s “loft” library: With a floor-to-ceiling wall of books—Felix is a devotee of graphic novelist Gareth Hinds and middle-grade author Matt Myklusch—bean bags ideal for reading, and an expertly organized collection of Lego minifigures, among other things, it’s a space meant for playing and, most importantly, dreaming.
“This room we don’t really touch. This is his life,” Farrugia says. “He’s having a true childhood [which] I think is a great thing. As Dean says, it’s what we’ve dreamed he would have, and he’s actually having it.”
As Farrugia and Smith gear up for Jazams’s 24th holiday season—Farrugia has already promised “secrets are in the works” for next year’s 25th celebration—they will continue to cultivate Jazams’s magical mojo. Of course, that includes things like managing the decidedly unmagical inventory increase in the store from the usual 8,500 to a staggering 9,500 items. But it also means community-wide gatherings, like the Summer Block Party (where Farrugia is famous for donning an oversize hoop skirt covered in pockets filled with small toys she dispenses to kids); the Princeton Children’s Book Festival, which Jazams holds in conjunction with the Princeton Public Library; and hopefully, if Farrugia has her way, the November Lantern Walk, a “magical night” where “you’re bringing light to the darkness, and it’s all for kids.”
“She’s always saying, ‘It’s going to be free for the kids,’” Smith says. “We’re spending ungodly sums of money. But she says, ‘Look, a lot of kids don’t get to do stuff because their parents are on restricted incomes. And I want it so every child can have fun and their parents don’t have to be stressed, and they don’t either.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, you are really from another planet, and I love you.’”
“For me, it’s part of what makes independent business vital to a thriving downtown: We are all interconnected,” Farrugia says. “People speak about what makes a community, and I truly believe the business community aids in this. We should do what is the right thing to do, not necessarily what is profitable, or will grow our business, but what is right for our children and our customers, what is right for making our world a slightly better, more magical place.”
“I just love that I can tell this story. It’s part of what I’m living. I feel pretty lucky.”
“This is a good story,” Smith says, smiling. “I like this story.”
We couldn’t agree more.