Trish Moon had settled in for the evening at home when the phone rang.
It was a clerk at the Durham toy store she manages. Two little boys were still in the store at closing time, and their parents were nowhere in sight.
Moon wishes that night had been an aberration. But she and other toy store workers say it is commonplace for parents, grandparents, even baby sitters to drop children off at toy stores and leave them, sometimes for hours.
“It amazes us on a daily basis,” Moon says.
It is not that children shoppers are unwelcome, explains Fred Chapman, owner of the store Moon manages.
“To some extent, we don’t mind watching a child for brief periods of time. We encourage people to take advantage of us in a small way; to go next door to get a Coke. That’s all right,” Chapman said.
“But somebody walking in you’ve never seen before, they drop off a kid and don’t come back for two hours. Meanwhile the child needs to go to the bathroom and you have that liability.
“People are using us for a day-care service,” Chapman says. “We have some concern about individuals taking advantage of us.”
His wife, Donna Chapman, checked recently with a few friends she knows through the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association. She found the problem is not unique to her store or to North Carolina.
Deb McCollister, who runs HMS Toys & Treasures in Omaha, Neb., tells of one family that makes a habit of leaving their children in her store.
“Mom likes to lunch in the very nice restaurant next door and drops off her children for an hour and a half,” McCollister says. “It happens about three times a year with this particular family.”
McCollister said there are two types of people who leave kids behind in her store: “One is the frequent customer who feels somewhat entitled. The other is just the general rude person.”
Not all toy stores frown on unaccompanied children, provided they are old enough to take care of themselves.
David Hesel said when he notices a parent leaving a child at his Concord, Mass., toy store, he checks to see how old the child is.
“We’re just concerned about an infant or a toddler being left,” said Hesel, president of the toy retailers group.
Once or twice, Hesel said, he’s told parents the store can’t take responsibility for their young child.
“If you leave a child in my store, you know the child is going to be safe here,” he said. “The question is the mentality of a parent doing that, and that’s what I don’t quite understand.”
It is no longer a shock to Moon, the Durham toy store manager.
She remembers a little girl, around 7 years old, whose baby sitter left her in the store.
“She was here for a long time,” Moon remembers. “It was real sad. The little girl said, ‘I can help you clean, put something together. I’ll help you. I don’t want to be in your way.”’
Moon wasn’t prepared for the baby sitter when she returned.
“I was expecting to see a teenager. But a grandmotherly-type person comes through the door and yells at her, ‘Come on, we’re ready to go,”’ she says.
“When I went up to say something to her, she says, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be back to buy something another time’ and left.”
Hesel says it doesn’t happen more than six times a year at his store, and he doesn’t see it as a major problem.
Dr. Oliver Johnson of the North Carolina Child Advocacy Group says the practice of leaving children alone in toy stores is part of a larger and, to him, unsettling trend.
“It’s symptomatic of what I believe is pervasive in society now, that we do not value our children,” he said.
As for the two boys left in Moon’s store at closing time last winter, the parents eventually returned. When the clerk chided them, the parents apologized. They thought it was all right since they were just running “a quick errand,” Moon says.