On your Doorstep: Inside Sylvanian World
Written by: Sophie Taylor
Walking along Monsell Road in Finsbury Park, we spy the charming exterior of a shop looking like something out of a children’s book circa 1932. Beneath a green and white striped awning, a whimsical new world of mini animals awaits.
Once inside we stumble about the store in hushed awe, reaching over a book of minuscule carpet samples/ family of miniature otters to tap a tiny bell. A tall, attractive young man appears with a smile. It’s Ben, the Sylvanian Families aficionado.
“How can I help?”
For those not yet in the know, Sylvanian Families (シルバニアファミリー? Shirubania famirī) are a ‘line of collectible anthropomorphic animal figurines made of flocked plastic’ first created by Epoch, the Japanese gaming company in 1985.
In recent years the company have introduced more technological features like customisable light bulbs, ceiling projections and movable parts. The ballet theatre for example has a port for your iPhone to play your own music while the characters dance on stage, whereas the new lighthouse set projects an impressive night sky on to your ceiling.
It’s certainly a far cry from the immovable houses I played with back in the early nineties, but I want to know what they make of these updated designs at the exclusive Finsbury Park store (the only Sylvanian Families exclusive store in the world).
Chatting with Ben we realise he’s been a fan since first collecting the toys as a child and is now over the moon to work in this extra specialist stockist.
“Having worked here for the last 13 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes throughout the ranges. The infectious popularity of Sylvanians has seen the families expand into over sixty countries.
This globalisation has seen more homogenised styles emerge, replacing more British traditional sets like the canal boat with a large, seaside cruiser complete with a waterslide and flippers for example.”
As Ben points out, however, these new ranges still encourage more independent play and creativity from the children (/adults) interacting with them, particularly in comparison to iPad games and cartoons that arguably only really encourage passive reaction.
So when did Ben’s passion for the felt friends begin? What made him want to work in this small, rather niche boutique on Monsell Road?
“Myself and my siblings all played with Sylvanian Families from a young age and continued to collect the sets ever since. They were all very jealous when I got the job here 13 years ago. It’s the dream. Many of the kids who come in say they wan’t to work here when they’re old enough.”
But it’s not just the kids who are impressed. Visitors to the store travel from far and wide to complete their collections or see the more rare, almost discontinued sets in person.
“One regular collector, an older man, will come in and always purchase two of the same product: one to play with and one to keep unboxed, pristine in it’s packaging”.
The store specialises in rare ranges, international versions and exclusively receives stock from Tokyo six months before the rest of the UK. I wonder, with all his first hand knowledge and passion for the brand, does Ben ever get the chance to make design suggestions when it comes to product creation?
“When the company was smaller I used to be able to give my feedback and ideas, but the brand has grown so big it’s no longer possible.”
And his favourite family?
“The otters were always my favourites as they were so different from the rest with their elongated necks and heads. I always thought they looked so inquisitive and noble.” We stop to look at a family of four residing in their cardboard and cellophane box. “Unfortunately they’ve been discontinued which is so sad.”
Ben and the rest of the team become understandably upset when another family comes to the end of it’s stock life, having lived with them for years. “Of course we have no control over which range is going to be stopped. It’s always sad news.”
Ben continues on a more positive note, listing off all the new families to be introduced recently, excitedly recounting there are over 70 in total.
“And they all need schools and houses, so it makes sense to keep bringing out more sets and house styles.”
I make a vague comparison to Eastenders and their ever changing cast, interspersed with the old regulars. The analogy is politely ignored and I realise what a crude reference it is, when in such esteemed company (although both having started life in 1985, weirdly). He knows each and every range off heart, saying it’s necessary to stay on top of brand knowledge when it comes to collectors rushing in and demanding to see Walnut squirrel baby or Cakebread toy poodle father.
Ben reaches for a Sylvanian toilet tent, a private cubicle upholstered in pretty fabric as part of the camping range. “Sylvanian Families are definitely more into glamping than roughing it in the wilderness these days.”
I notice the fake water running through the river family set, and we laugh at the idea of having a Sylvanian in a real river. The flocked plastic ‘fur’ is of a delicate variety, and one prone to balding after being diagnosed the favourite toy, fondled daily between finger and thumb.
Remembering my balding family of bears stashed away somewhere in a loft, I reminisce about the groups of neglected felt babies gathering dust. I start to wonder about the girl next door who had a bedroom floor coated in Sylvanian Family worlds and whether she’d kept them all since she has children of her own now.
Ben can see they’re now reaching a second generation of fans, and parents are introducing their children to Sylvanian Families much earlier. “Whereas initially it was targeted at roughly 7 year olds, they’re starting as early as 3 now. It’s because the parents, the original fans, just can’t wait to share the joy. Some will share their original toys, while you’ll find others keep them separate and buy their children their own new ranges.”
But the most exciting prospect for mega fans is the annual Sylvanian Family event in Whitchurch. Since 2007, the weekends festivities take place in a picturesque village where you can meet the characters, have picnics in the woods, watch performances, get your face painted as well as take yourself off to a quaint little pub for the older fans.
The best thing about these rather surreal Sylvanian shenanigans? It’s all free.
Find out more at www.sylvanianstorekeepers.com
Sylvanian Familes Store
68 Mountgrove Road
Highbury, N5 2LT
First photo c/o Sylvanian Familes
All other photos by Mike Barry of The Barefaced Movement
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