A 2016 People’s Liberty Globe grantee project, the Play Library — which loans out and houses toys, board games and more fun — expanded this month, opening the doors to its new space at 1306 Main St. in Over-the-Rhine on June 9.
The location represents a Cincinnati success story and the beginning of a new chapter for the nonprofit.
The Play Library’s origins can be traced back to the woman behind the concept: Julia Fischer, founder and current board vice chair.
After spending a decade working in the toy industry in Los Angeles, Fischer moved to Cincinnati with the seeds of a business plan for a toy lending library in the back of her mind. And when she caught wind of local philanthropic lab People’s Liberty and their efforts to invest in individuals with “bold ideas,” she applied for and received one of their Globe Grants.
The grant awarded her $15,000 and the opportunity to set up the Play Library for two months inside of People’s Liberty’s storefront gallery across from Findlay Market. But when the time came to close up shop, an issue arose: people kept coming to the storefront thinking “PL” stood Play Library, rather than People’s Liberty. Fischer realized there was enough support in the community to make the library more than a pop-up.
“People were upset that (the gallery) wasn’t the Play Library so I realized I should do it for real,” Fischer says.
And she did. In 2017 she relocated the Play Library to a storefront at 1517 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine. And after two years there, the library moved again to a new and larger location on Main Street, with a grand opening that coincided with June’s Second Sunday on Main event.
Fischer has since moved back to Los Angeles to work for Bad Robot Studios, she maintains her role as board vice chair while Joni Sherman oversees operations locally as the executive director of Play Library. Sherman says she has already seen an increase of foot traffic at the new Main Street space.
There are three different levels of membership at the Play Library: $12 per month allows you to visit during normal business hours and play as long as you want; $15 takes it a step further, allowing you to borrow up to three games at a time. You can also opt to buy a punch card; for $20 you can take your family for five playdates. One unlimited family play date costs $5.
The mostly volunteer-run library is all ages and geared toward all socio-economic levels. No one is turned away if they can’t afford a membership or they happen to forget their wallet that day — the “Play It Forward” program uses each paid membership to provide play tokens and access to those who can’t afford it.
Upon entering the Main Street storefront, you’ll see the adult board game section first, with games like Cranium, 5 Second Rule and Settlers of Catan. Walk further and you’ll enter the kids’ space, which boasts a variety of toys and games with classics including Payday, The Game of Life and Clue. There’s also a play kitchen, a dress-up section, a chair made of stuffed animals and more, including the Cincinnati Toy History Museum.
Throughout the space, the walls are decorated like a giant yet-to-be-filled-in coloring book, with variations of their cartoon robot mascot chilling in different settings. Sherman notes that while patrons do come in and ask if the walls are ever going to be colored in, the black and white design is on purpose: the monochromatic walls and furniture allow the toys and games to be part of the room’s decor.
“I wanted the space to be fun, but what was equally important to me was that it was clean,” founder Fischer says of the design. “I didn’t want it to look like some messy nursery.”
If basic chairs and tables aren’t your thing, you can also take a seat on a swing or curl up in a dreamy window seat.
Member Susan Angel has been bringing her granddaughter to Play Library for about two years.
“I would describe it as a wonderland for games and toys and make believe,” she says. “I doubt there’s one child that is able to be in here with a frown. My granddaughter never wants to leave.”
Angel believes the space acts as a nice retreat for children where they can simply play and bond with others.
Beyond the toys, Fischer emphasizes the library’s classes and extracurricular activities. For example, at Craft Time with Ruby and Frances, a mother comes in with her two daughters — ages 2 and 4 — to lead a craft class on Friday mornings. Adults can look forward to a macramé class with food and wine. Recently, they held their first Beer ‘n Board Games night, where for $15 you could hang out, drink brews and play games with friends and strangers alike.
Since they’re still new to Main Street, Play Library’s Chairman of the Board of Directors Rick Ruskin says they’re still focusing on creating a solid base as an organization. (Ruskin has been on the board of directors for Play Library for about two years but was recently promoted to chairman.)
It’s the outpouring of positive feedback from the community for Play Library that inspires him to help build it into an organization that will, hopefully, last well into the future. Ruskin has been working in the toy industry for nearly 20 years and has racked up experience at iconic Cincinnati toy companies like Kenner. He’s happy with the move and the continued goal of cultivating connection.
“I think just anything that is going to bring people together (is important)” Sherman says. “I think we’re really missing a lot of that connection these days.”