The big, red sided building at 3719 Decoursey Ave. in Latonia KY seemed out of place. It was carved out in a neighborhood full of churches, auto repair shops, bars, and early 20th century homes. It was gawdy. It was huge. And let’s just say it wouldn’t win any architectural design awards.
But Johnny’s Toys was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
Growing up in Latonia, I was privileged to have a neighborhood mom and pop toy store just a bike ride away. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized just how extraordinary it was to be able to pop in for a wiffle ball, get a new tire for my bike, or spend my birthday/holiday money on all the Star Wars toys $25 could get. And in the 1980s, you could get roughly five action figures and a ship for $25.
(Sidebar: I was all set to meet Darth Vader and get an autograph at Johnny’s in 1981, but got sick walking out the door. My dad went and got the autograph for me.)
Arguably, the biggest thrill was getting the Johnny’s Toys Birthday Castle Key in the mail. It allowed one free mystery gift from the magical castle on your birthday. The anticipation of turning that key as the associate “helped” you open that castle door is a feeling of wonder that no big box-toy store could replicate. The toys, wrapped in red and white striped paper, were never anything extravagant, but it wasn’t about the toy. It was about the fact that only you were allowed in there at that particular moment. Your owned the key to the castle. And that personal card you received in the mail for your birthday? That was the work of Helen Warren, known as “The Birthday Elf” who worked at Johnny’s for over 50 years.
Johnny’s Toys started in 1939 when Bill Martin, at the time in partnership with Tom Holian at a hardware store in Latonia, bought Miss Mary’s Candies shop on Decoursey Ave. Although Miss Mary sold only a few toys, Bill realized toys were big sellers. He decided to sell a little more, and do it year round which was a novel idea at the time. But why was it called Johnny’s and not Bill’s? The story goes that Bill’s older brother Johnny was a well known figure in Latonia, and everyone assumed that if the Martin’s had a store, it must be Johnny’s.
The name stuck.
When the war came, Bill’s father and sister ran the shop while Bill served with the Army in the South Pacific. After the war, business boomed and in the 1960s, Bill built the iconic three story red building on the lot next to his store. He also expanded operations to Greenhills, Milford, Norwood and Westwood. Johnny’s was one of the first toy stores to have year-round layaway, as well as a dedicated model train shop and bicycle shop.
The Latonia location moved to the Latonia Shopping Center in the 1990s, and later a 44,000 foot building just off 3L Highway in Latonia in the 2000s. Unfortunately, Johnny’s Toys suffered the fate that many brick and mortar toy stores suffered over the last 15 years: Gone, but never forgotten.
I worked @ Johnny's Toys in Greenhills in the 70s ! So many wonderful people worked there! Made so many friends & coworkers! Thank you Mr Meyer & Bill Martin for having me. I really enjoyed working there.
I knew the Greenhills location when I was a kid and we took our kids to the Milford location multiple times each year (2 birthdays plus Christmas shopping). Great memories!!!