A former toy designer wants to connect families and community through her Play Library

Julia Fische received a $15,000 People's Liberty’s Globe Grant to pursue her dream of creating a lending library of toys and games for children and adults.

click to enlarge A happy Julia Fischer walks a balloon toy through her Over-the-Rhine Play Library. - Photo: Carson Neff, People's Liberty
Photo: Carson Neff, People's Liberty
A happy Julia Fischer walks a balloon toy through her Over-the-Rhine Play Library.

Julia Fischer is very much a Big kid — a female, pogo-jumping version of Tom Hanks’ character from the film about a child who wakes up as an adult and gets a job with a toy company.

Fischer, who spent a decade working in the toy industry, moved to Covington, Ky. from Los Angeles two years ago. Just when she was thinking of returning to the coast, she received a $15,000 People's Liberty’s Globe Grant to pursue her dream of creating a lending library of toys and games for children and adults. The Play Library opened last month inside the Globe Gallery in Over-the-Rhine and will operate through Aug. 27. 

A day before the debut, Fischer arrived at the space in a red dress that conveyed she was a woman in charge, and red canvas sneakers that gave away the girl inside. The 35-year-old presented her business card, then quickly pointed out that its reverse features instructions for folding it into a glider. She later revealed a tattoo of a paper airplane’s flight on one wrist, and on the other a surreal scene of a treehouse, a bunny swinging and a UFO abducting a dinosaur.  

Fischer says it was letdowns in her grown-up career that inspired her to design an environment built upon her girlhood memories of family fun-time and make-believe. 

The toy companies she had worked for as a designer and project manager thought up high-quality playthings, but when they sold their products to big-box stores, they had to scale back concepts to satisfy a lower price point.

“We’d end up with a shell of an original idea that we’d know would break,” Fischer says. “I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. I want all kids to have access to all possible toys.”  

She decided a library would address families’ budget concerns, and it would help reduce the number of broken gizmos in landfills. As Fischer started collecting toy donations, she expanded her vision to include games and to serve all ages. 

Over-the-Rhine appealed to her as a perfect experimental playground, with young single professionals and families moving in among lower-income residents who have lived in the neighborhood for years. This summer Fischer hopes to see new and longtime urban dwellers of all backgrounds become friends through fun. “A library is the great equalizer,” she says. “You find everyone there.”  

The space isn’t limited to Over-the-Rhine residents. Anyone and everyone is invited to come and operate a remote-controlled car, get tangled in Twister, play dress-up, snap together Legos, stage a puppet show and solve puzzles (or “selzzup,” as the sign says) for free while at the Play Library. But children under 14 must be with an adult. The Play Library isn’t a drop-off daycare, Fischer emphasizes. The whole idea is for families to play together, or for parents to connect over a game while their kids entertain themselves. 

With a membership starting at $20, anybody can check out one item at a time for a week. Surveys indicate the typical family buys 20 play items per summer at an average price of $30. The Play Library not only saves money but also reduces household clutter, Fischer points out. 

The library, meanwhile, has stocked 400 new and donated toys and games on the shelves and in cubbies. (Grown-up fare such as Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens is placed above tots’ eye level.) Fischer has another 400 items in reserve. “I’ve been to the Container Store 8 million times,” she jokes.

Once inside the bright play space, good luck tearing a child — or yourself — away. Seating areas include two wide swings suspended from a cardboard tree, plus chairs painted to look like people. Fischer and friends decorated white cardboard on the walls with black line drawings of Seussian plants, animals and furnishings. Some of the images are interactive. Touch the fishbowl drawn near the front window and hear a gurgle. When the librarian scans a game for checkout, a frog behind the desk compliments the choice. When you bring the game back, watch and listen to gears crank on the returns box.  

Fischer has been asked whether visitors can color in the wall drawings. The answer is no. She went with black and white because she wants the library to feel like an immersive museum that inspires imagination and respect for the surroundings, and not like a child-care center. Besides, who’s to say what hues the various images should be? 

“I love that people ask me (about coloring), because they see the world of possibility,” says Fischer, whose undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis is in visual communications and advertising design. 

It’s that kind of excitement over a blank canvas that Fischer remembers from childhood. Though her parents were affluent, they didn’t want to foster a sense of entitlement with a ton of toys. Fischer was happy using a slipper as Barbie’s convertible, while Pher friends had the actual accessory. Her favorite toys were Micro Machines and Hot Wheels cars, which Fischer says she played with “like a girl,” imagining each having a role in a little family.  

Fischer says that when she left for college, her working mother apologized for not being around enough. But Fischer says she doesn’t recall her growing-up years like that. “My memories are of playing together on nights and weekends,” she says. “I want to connect families in the same way.”

To achieve that goal, Fischer left her job at a video agency, and she’s still seeking Play Library volunteers. She also wants to find someone who would provide a permanent location for the library after August, and she is looking for investors interested in franchising her concept across the nation and world. 

She’s not playing around.

“This is what I want to happen so bad,” Fischer says. “I’m pouring everything into it.”

PLAY LIBRARY hosts its free weekly family game night 5-9 p.m. Wednesday and its first biweekly adults-only game night 6-10 p.m. Thursday. More info: playlibrary.org

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