Thursday, January 20, 2022

School Crossing to Mark 25th Birthday with Jazz, Cupcakes

Sherry and Bob Phipps (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Sherry and Bob Phipps are celebrating the 25th birthday of School Crossing. (Gregory Connolly/WYDail

After moving to the Williamsburg area more than 25 years ago, Sherry Phipps thought about becoming a teacher.

The time it would take to earn a master’s degree deterred her from following that path, so she decided to open a business that combines her desire to work in education with her love of children — and draws from the experience she had in retail before she left the workforce to stay home with her two children.

In 1990, her youngest child began kindergarten, and she and her husband, Bob, opened School Crossing, which primarily sold teaching supplies and also dabbled in toys.

“It all just kind of fell into place that this is where I was supposed to be,” Sherry Phipps said.

With School Crossing’s birthday fast approaching, the Phipps family wants to celebrate the store’s success with a party Saturday, featuring cupcakes and the Dog Street Rhythm Kings Jazz Band.

She opened the store in the Williamsburg Crossing Shopping Center, which at the time was a bustling retail destination at the crossroads of Williamsburg and the most developed pockets of James City County along John Tyler Highway.

The store has weathered the ebb and flow of the economy, from the peaks of the mid-2000s through the recession that has characterized recent years. It has lived through the decline of the Williamsburg Crossing Shopping Center, only to move to Monticello Avenue, where the retail spark is now brightest.

Through all those years, the store has grown into a county fixture, built upon a foundation of repeat customers.

“That’s what’s neat about Williamsburg — people stay here, in this kind of community,” she said. “Kids who grew up in here are coming back in and looking for toys for their own children.”

Within a couple years of opening, it became apparent to the Phipps family the store should focus more on toys.

Want to go to the celebration?

The birthday party for School Crossing will run all day Saturday. There will be 150 cupcakes available when the store opens at 10 a.m. The Dog Street Rhythm Kings Jazz Band will play live from 1 to 3 p.m. All merchandise in the store will be 25 percent off for the entire day.

“I started then realizing there was a difference between good quality, open-ended toys that would last for generations versus stuff you just get [at a big box store],” she said. “We have bought for our children lots of stuff on TV and they just had to have it and they played with it once or twice and they lost interest or it broke.”

So Phipps looked in her childrens’ closets, where she found the Brio, Playmobil and other toys the kids went back to time and time again. She began to stock those items in the store, and until Brio — a company that sells wooden train toys — stopped selling in the U.S., it was among her top performers.

Teachers were still a major part of the business model. Every August, the Phipps gear up for a major sales period, when teachers from throughout the area — and from as far away as the west coast — descend upon the store to buy the posters, games, bulletin boards and other implements they will use throughout the soon-to-begin academic year.

The highlight of the August educational rush is the Teachers Open House, which the Phipps have hosted each year since the store opened. Bob Phipps said it attracts a couple thousand teachers annually for thousands of dollars in merchandise giveaways.

The marriage of toys and teaching supplies resulted in a firm backbone for the Phipps’ fledgling business. After a brief foray into the Newport News market with a short-lived second store, they consolidated their merchandise into the Williamsburg Crossing store and doubled its size.

“We decided Williamsburg was a better market for us,” Bob Phipps said, noting he left his job with a building materials company in 1993 to begin work full time at School Crossing.

Over the ensuing years, the Phipps children started to help in the store. When they were younger, the two kids — Lindsey and Brian — could be paid in toys like Playmobil for help they provided on the weekends. As teenagers, they worked alongside their parents as part-time employees, learning the ins and outs of the store’s handpicked, eclectic merchandise.

“They definitely grew up in the store, helping, working from the time they were 16 or so,” Sherry Phipps said. “It’s been a really fun family business.”

By the late 1990s, the project to extend Route 199 from its then-terminus at John Tyler Highway out to the Lightfoot exit (234) on Interstate 64 was well underway. Part of the project forced a realignment of the access roads to Williamsburg Crossing, which caused business to dry up at that shopping center as Monticello Marketplace and New Town appeared on James City County’s retail landscape.

School Crossing's store front in Monticello Marketplace. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
School Crossing’s store front in Monticello Marketplace. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

So the Phippses packed up in the first months of the 2000s and joined other businesses like Comic Cubicle, Burger King, Corner Pocket, Twiddy Realty, Authentic Guitars and Laney’s Diamond & Jewelry, all of which left Williamsburg Crossing for greener pastures along what was the then nascent Monticello Avenue retail corridor.

They have remained there since the move, watching as a flood of big box and chain retailers and restaurants have filled much of the available space along Monticello Avenue.

During that time, the children who were among the first to come into the store have grown and in some cases had their own children whom they have brought back to School Crossing.

“It’s fun to share stories,” she said of the repeat customers. “’How’s your mother doing? How’s this working for you?’ And watching people have grandkids just like us.”

Sherry Phipps said decades of work on the front lines of the store have equipped her and her husband with a mastery of the merchandise that sets them apart from larger retailers.

“A lot of the big box stores you’re not going to find somebody who has actually played the game,” she said. “[They will say] ‘Here’s the game aisle, you read the box and figure it out.’ All the games, we’ve played. I’ve got firsthand knowledge of putting them together.”

When a customer comes in, they get a more personalized experience that she said has been a key part of the store’s success over the years. They hope it will continue to bring them success, as they have every intention of keeping the business open for many more years.

To celebrate the store’s 25th birthday, a concert has been scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the store. The Dog Street Rhythm Kings Jazz Band will play live. In addition, a 150 cupcake display will be setup when the store opens at 10 a.m. All merchandise in the store will be 25 percent off on Saturday.

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