Of all the professions, perhaps none is so maligned and at the same time so revered as teaching. The public school shootings of recent years reveal a system that sometimes alienates students to the point of murder and suicide. But a nonfiction book about a teacher, Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie," is one of the biggest best-sellers in publishing history.
On any school day during school hours, close to one-fourth of the nation's population can be found inside a public school building, as a student, a teacher, or an administrator. Add the numbers from private schools, colleges, graduate schools and trade schools, and it's clear that good teachers are always in demand.
Thanks to two factors a rapidly growing school-age population and new state laws requiring smaller class sizes the opportunities are at a peak for public schoolteachers in the Bay Area. California has such a severe shortage of qualified teachers that the state government has spent $2 million in the past three years to recruit teachers from other states.
According to CalTeach, a state-funded organization that operates six regional offices providing information, recruiting, and job referrals for people pursuing a teaching career, California needs to hire 300,000 new teachers in the next 10 years. The state government has introduced several new financial assistance packages to help make this possible, such as the Governor's Teacher Fellowship, which provides a one-time $20,000 award to college graduates seeking a teaching credential, and the Assumption Program of Loans for Education (APLE), which pays up to $11,000 to undergraduates who commit to teaching in underserved areas after graduation.
The San Francisco Unified School District, with 4000 teachers and 2000 paraprofessionals including classroom assistants and security aides, is required to be fully staffed by the opening of each school year, and now has just 1% vacancies. However, many of those were hired do not have a teaching credential usually earned by at least one full year of study beyond a bachelor's degree. The greatest needs are in special education, math, science, and bilingual education.
The school district's Human Resources Department, which processes all applications for staff positions, still encourages credentialed teachers to apply. "We in San Francisco are always looking for energetic, qualified teachers, and someone could say we don't have enough, because we have a lot of folks on emergency credentials," noted Human Services spokesperson Jolie Weinroth. "Sometime in the middle to end of October we will probably be looking to hire approximately 39 teachers."
She added that the district is now in "a discussion stage to offer a very attractive retirement package" to 1200 veteran teachers. For it to go through, at least 333 teachers must sign up. "And if they do, we're going to start recruiting very heavily for next fall," said Weinroth. One problem among older teachers, she noted, is that many of them are not computer-savvy, unlike the new generation of teachers who grew up with computers.
Substitute teaching is another way to go. Nationwide, about 10 percent of all teachers found in the classroom in a given day are subs, who might be hired for anywhere from one day to several months. In California, the minimum qualification is generally a bachelor's degree and a passing grade in the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), which is administered six times a year. The test has three parts -- reading, writing and math and takes four hours.
Subs in San Francisco receive $115 to $145 per day. Human Resources is still accepting applications for substitutes, but is not processing them now, because they have an adequate number of candidates. "As the school year goes on, we always need more," said Weinroth.
The oldest continuously operating public school on the West Coast is Spring Valley Elementary School at 1451 Jackson Street, a science magnet school with bilingual classes in Spanish and Cantonese for kindergarten through third grade, and English-only classes for K through fifth. It will celebrate its 150th birthday in May. Lonnie Chin, the principal since 1977, said she has seen the school's population drop from 570 to about 360 in the past few years, as a result of families moving out of San Francisco.
Chin spent a decade as an elementary schoolteacher before being named a "sink-or-swim principal" following the death of her predecessor from a stroke. The most important quality she looks for in a teacher, said Chin, is "passion, because teaching is a giving profession, and anybody who goes into teaching has to have the passion for giving. Particularly if they're interested in working in urban centers. Then I think you have to be an advocate for making sure that there's equal opportunity....I would not be doing this job and putting all the time and money I put in it if I didn't really come first from social consciousness, which is a desire to make our society a little more equal."
With the pressure from the state government to raise test scores in the public schools, many tutoring services and after-school programs are recruiting instructors to work with children one-on-one or in small groups.
Polina Orlov and Anna Shraiman, both 25 years old and recently downsized from their dot-com jobs, just opened A.L.S. Tutoring Center, a one-room teaching facility at 3410 Geary Boulevard, in the heart of the city's Russian community. They are offering courses to attract both English- and Russian-speaking students of all ages, from first grade to adult, with instruction in arts, languages, and sciences during after-school hours and on Saturdays.
"When this problem started with the dot-coms basically falling on their faces, we started thinking, what could we do that's not completely full-time, so we can still keep other jobs?" said Orlov, a graphic designer and art teacher. "And we decided, this is a very good service that there's not enough of. We found that it costs very little money to start, $5000 or maybe a little less. And there's plenty of rooms in this building, right on this floor, that are available to rent any time we need them."
Both she and Shraiman believe that public education in San Francisco is far inferior to that found in the former Soviet Union, where they lived until their mid-teens. But besides being motivated to starting the business for economic reasons, she looks forward to getting away from the computer keyboard, where she has often been trapped for 20 hours a day.
"I come to life in the classroom. I love talking, and I love sharing my knowledge with people, and actually seeing results.... You can see the flower bloom. You actually feel that you've left a mark in the world," said Orlov. "It's not to get rich. It's more for your soul."
* * *
To apply for the San Francisco public schools or to get a CBEST brochure, visit the Human Resources Department, 555 Franklin Street, 2nd floor. Tel.: 415-241-6130. Web site: www.sfusd.edu.
For more about CBEST: 888-921-2682 or www.ctc.ca.gov.
For CalTeach information: 888-CAL-TEAC or www.calteach.com.
For A.L.S. Tutoring Center, call 415-263-0427
San Francisco Examiner, 3-3-02
Children's entertainers: the role of a lifetime
By Max Millard
It's a Sunday morning in San Francisco. Breakfast is over, the weather looks chancy, and a family with young children is scanning the newspapers, trying to find some activity they can attend together. A movie? Out of all the first-run films appearing in Bay Area theaters, only one has a G rating.
But at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, several hundred children and parents eagerly await their main weekend event, as they line up for bench seats in the museum's luxuriously padded theater. The smallest fry sit up front, on a parachute spread on the floor. At 11 a.m., emcee Scott Gelfand takes center stage and announces, "Ladies and gentlefolks: It's showtime!"
The featured performer, magician Jay Alexander, performs a quick-paced set with illusions, juggling, card tricks and balloon animals, all with an undercurrent of comedy. His magic wand starts to duplicate itself, until Jay is left with a whole handful of wands, which he gives away.
It's a typical production of the Buddy Club, a kid-oriented vaudeville circuit now in its 15th season, that presents live entertainment from October through April at three medium-sized theaters in San Francisco, North Berkeley and San Rafael. Gelfand, the founder and owner, is part of the Bay Area's small but well-established community of professionals who specialize in children's entertainment.
Besides organizing his club's 30 scheduled shows this season, Gelfand is a booking agent, providing acts for private birthday parties, schools and corporate events, and is hired as a coach by performers seeking to make their acts more family-appropriate.
"My usual tag line is that the best jugglers drop all the balls, the best magicians have rubber wands that break, the best singers make mistakes in their songs," says Gelfand, 42. "Kids don't want to be impressed. They want to laugh along."
The Buddy Club's shows, he says, "are for 2- to 12-year-olds and their parents. Half the audience are adults, so anybody I hire, I want them to be able to entertain those three categories. Any songs where the singer just sings to the audience, I have them cut that out. They all have to be call and response. That's because 3- and 4-year-olds have to be involved.... And I lean towards comedy as the number one criteria for any performer."
Mark Bunnell, 39, is a San Francisco juggler who, with his partner, musician Andrea Terry, forms the comedy team Carnival of Chaos. Together they perform 150 to 200 shows a year, of which at least half are for children's audiences, especially public schools.
"I think TV is such a bombardment on all of our senses," says Bunnell in a cafe interview near his Richmond District home. "And kids don't get many opportunities to go out and see entertainment other than a movie theater, so they don't get that appreciation of what live performance is all about. Some kids totally love it.
"I think it's important for them to see an adult doing something that's alternative something that's not climbing the corporate ladder so they can kind of rock back on their heels and go, `Well, those two are smart, they're doing what they like, they're good at it, they're having fun, they're responsible, well-functioning adults.' I think it opens kids' eyes and allows them, maybe for a moment or down the road, to take a look at what they really want to do, and have a little more choice than what they might have had before."
Twice a year, Carnival of Chaos sends a mailing to 3000 elementary and middle schools throughout California to get gigs for their educational assembly programs on tobacco prevention. Using a combination of juggling, unicycle stunts, music, comedy, and positive motivation, they usually do two shows in the same day, and can adjust their presentation to match the grade level, charging upwards of $300 per show.
"In addition to coming in and the kids having a blast and learning from just the theatrical experience, we think we owe it to the schools and to the kids to bring something of meaning and worth to them at the same time," Bunnell says.
A former elementary school counselor, he says that one of his favorite aspects of the work is choosing volunteers. "I really like picking the kids who aren't getting the straight A's, and they're not Joe Cool or Miss Hip.... There's telltale signs when they really don't think they're going to get picked. Like the troublemaker who can't believe he got picked, or the kid who's really dishevelled and kind of dirty... and you can see the depression and the sadness fall off their shoulders, and they stand up a little straighter. That to me is a special part of what we do."
Anyone who has visited Fisherman's Wharf on occasion over the past 25 years is likely to have caught the act of Fred Anderson, 45, one of San Francisco's most successful jugglers. Describing himself as a "professional goofball," he is a regular at the Crystal Geyser Center Stage on Pier 39, where he performs for crowds of 500 or more, mainly families with children.
Part of his act is to invite young children on stage, then offer them the choice of a balloon animal or a $5 bill. The child often snatches the money instantly, which brings a big laugh. It's all calculated: Anderson estimates that the balloon is chosen only 5 percent of the time.
"One of the themes that runs through a lot of children's shows is giving children power over adults," he explains. "Kids spend their whole life having grownups saying, `Oh, you're just a kid. Shut up and do your homework.' And it's really empowering for them to get into the situation where where they get to be the smarter person."
He now makes the bulk of his living from cruise ships and festivals, but still does some kids-only shows because "I like the sense of wonder that they bring to the experience. They're not all jaded like a lot of adults."
Gelfand, who works with dozens of children's entertainers, places the salary range in the field at "anywhere from $25,000 a year, for somebody who probably doesn't work that hard, to someone who makes a couple of million dollars a year."
Anderson's advice for getting into the field: "Taking improv comedy and comedy writing and acting. Once you learn the skills, it's easier to do the acting required to make the jokes or whatever script you've written interesting to the audience."
Bunnell agrees, and adds: "My other advice would be: treat it like a business. Set goals, be realistic, get out there and perform, don't just wait for it to fall in your lap. Talk to other people in the field to see if it's what you think it is. Maybe you could save five or 10 years of frustration if you find out that driving around a lot isn't what you want to do."
For him, the rewards greatly eclipse the drawbacks. "It's a pretty special thing to walk away from a school and every kid in the schoolyard's yelling your name and waving at you. How many people get that chance?"
For more information:
San Francisco Examiner, 5-3-02
Teachers needed: no experience necessary
By Max Millard
In 1997, when Radames Garcia was in his senior year as an engineering major at San Francisco State University, he decided to take a break. "I was burned out and really tired of college, of people telling me what to do," he recalls. "I realized I just wanted to work for a while and get some experience."
Combining two of his main interests education and computers he was soon hired to run the computer lab at Spring Valley Elementary School in the city. Without a degree or any type of teaching certificate, he found himself serving as a computer teacher for hundreds of students and their teachers. Although he later left for two years to work for a computer software company, he recently returned to his old job at Spring Valley, where he has a new appreciation of teaching versus private industry.
"Technical jobs pay well, but you have to put in long hours, you have to come in weekends, you don't see your family as much, you don't make friends as much. ... You need to have another life, so I'm toying with the idea of going into teaching," he remarks during a lunchtime tour of the lab. "But I'd like to finish my engineering degree, so I'm kind of at a crossroads right now, and that's why I'm here."
The school district pays him about $25 an hour, compared to $55 at the software company. But Garcia much prefers the school's work environment. "I think teachers have a lot of autonomy in the classroom," he notes. "You get trusted with responsibility. If you're doing your job right, nobody interferes with you. You make mistakes but you learn from them." At the company, where he still does some work as a contractor, he felt that the employees were regarded as "task monkeys," with little freedom to make independent decisions.
The nationwide teacher shortage, which is especially sharp in California, is creating new opportunities for people with little or no teaching experience to plunge in and sink or swim. Rather than going the usual route of spending a full year after the bachelor's degree to earn a teaching credential, they are seeking work in alternative educational programs whose only requirements are knowledge, enthusiasm, and desire to work with children.
One such program is Infusion-One, founded by Gaylon Logan in 1994, which provides after-school classes and activities at four San Francisco elementary schools. Adrienne Eberhardt, a 26-year-old free-lance photographer, has been working part-time as a photography teacher for Infusion-One since last August, at both Malcolm X Academy in Hunters Point and DeAvila School in the Haight District. Her only previous teaching experience was giving some piano lessons during high school.
"Overall, it really just makes my day," she says. "It doesn't seem that there are a lot of photography classes around for kids, and they really enjoy it and grab onto it pretty fast. ... It has been really challenging at the same time, trying to keep order and be productive."
What she likes best about working with kids is that "everything is new to them, and so they really want to understand how it works, every little part of it ... which is really exciting for me to watch, and kind of inspires me in my own work, to bring a fresh approach to it." She observes that kids "love any opportunity to express themselves, whereas adults, I find it much harder to pull creativity out of."
Earning $80 for two one-hour classes and their preparation, she looks upon the teaching as an important part of her work. "You're constantly figuring out ways to help people be creative or inspire creativity. ... Along the way, you're learning so much yourself." Although she leads a successful career as a commercial and fine art photographer, Eberhardt's sudden immersion into teaching has her pondering a change. "If I could teach photography six hours a day to different groups of kids, that's something I would definitely be very interested in," she says.
One of the most successful alternative teaching programs for people with reading disabilities is Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. Founded in 1986, and headquartered in San Luis Obispo, California, it now has 33 centers nationwide, including three in the Bay Area. The 34th one will open in San Francisco in late May.
Lisa Nowell, who will head the San Francisco center, has been working for Lindamood-Bell for the past four years, starting as a teacher. She had a degree in psychology, but like about half of the teachers hired by the organization, she did not have a teaching credential. Nevertheless, most of Lindamood-Bell's programs have NPA (nonpublic agency) certification by the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, making them equivalent to public school education from credentialed teachers.
"Kids who are having a hard time keeping up in school often do come to us instead of school for a limited period of time, usually for 12 weeks, to get their processing up closer to grade level, allowing them to then function in the classroom," says Nowell. "Sometimes they'll go to school until noon, then come to us from about 1 to 4. When kids come after school it's usually between one and three hours. ... We always see kids five days a week, and it's that intensive nature that makes what we do effective."
Lindamood-Bell has no classes in the traditional sense, but instructs its students one-on-one. "It's all based on that child's learning needs," says Nowell. "We're teaching them to become self-correcting. ... The average treatment time is anywhere from six to nine weeks. We want them to be independent so that they don't need to come back to us."
To be hired by Lindamood-Bell, teaching applicants must have a four-year degree, or be working towards one. Once hired, the teachers undergo 56 hours of training, then observe experienced teachers before starting on their own.
"We cull our teachers we actually call them clinicians from a variety of backgrounds," says Nowell. "They don't have to have specific educational experience, but they have to have good language processing and good positive interaction. ... They have to be positive, they have to be interested in working with kids one on one. Those are our main requirements."
Using a multi-sensory approach not taught in the public schools, such as air-writing, Lindamood-Bell often helps students make several grade levels of improvement in a matter of weeks. "Seeing the changes in a child's self-esteem is one of the most rewarding things I've been able to do," says Nowell. "And knowing that that's going to affect not only their functioning in the world, but also their functioning in their family and their social group. ... They're so used to having somebody help them through the reading process or the spelling process, and to see that they can do it by themselves ... is absolutely phenomenal."
Lindamood-Bell's starting pay for teachers in San Francisco is $15 an hour. Nowell says that recently the organization has been "getting more young, very energetic applicants."
She doesn't expect that to change overnight when the economy starts steaming again. "The dot-com was very infectious, and people who weren't interested necessarily in the world of computers went there, so I think we have some people who are just kind of re-evaluating their lives and taking this time during the recession to do that."
Radames Garcia often works individually with students who have problems learning the computer by visual or oral instruction, but can learn it by touch. He says that the "positive vibrations from the kids" goes a long way toward compensating for the pay difference. "You get a lot of hugs. You get appreciated, and you feel that every time that you spend half an hour with a kid, teaching them how to do something directly, that's something they take with them the rest of their lives."
San Francisco Examiner, 8-23-02
Teach English and see the world
By Max Millard
"Everybody in this room was born into a world where English is the de facto international language," said linguist and radio personality Barry Farber during his language-learning seminar in a recent visit to San Francisco. "When a Russian plane lands in Beijing, China, the air doesn't talk to the ground in Russian and the ground doesn't talk to the air in Chinese. They speak English. ... When the Norwegian whaling ships come into Capetown, South Africa to recruit a Zulu crew for the long Antarctic whaling season ... they do those interviews in English."
Although Mandarin Chinese is spoken by far more people than any other language, English ranks second in sheer numbers, and first for business, travel and the Internet.
San Francisco has a worldwide reputation for its language schools that teach English to foreigners. Concentrated in the Union Square area, they feature small, immaculate classrooms, an informal atmosphere, and home placement services for students to live with American families during their stay. Most students come to the U.S. for one to six months of classes, then return home.
Some of the schools also have intensive four-week courses for Americans who want to learn to teach English. Costing $2000 to $2700, they result in a certificate in teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) that is valid in most private language schools throughout the world. It is slightly different from ESL (English as a Second Language), which is geared for permanent American residents.
The largest English-language school in the city is Intrax English Institute, which has 500 to 600 students and employs almost 35 teachers, many of them part-time. Gus Riera, the academic coordinator and a former teacher, says that the field "is really not that hard to get in, and job opportunities abound." The downside, he says, is that "as an EFL teacher here in San Francisco, you're going to get paid somewhere between 15 and maybe 19 dollars per hour. There are very few full-time positions with benefits, so most of the time people are paid hourly. They might work at three or four different schools, just to maintain a full schedule."
Conrad Heyns, director of studies and teacher training at the International House language school, pegs the hourly pay at $15 to $25 and cautions that even these contract jobs tend to be seasonal, with peak demand in the summer and minimal work from October to February. But other countries, he says, have such a shortage of English teachers that many of his graduates "just end up hopping on a plane and going wherever, and scouting out jobs."
Heyns says that the rule of thumb for working abroad is that "you usually make enough money to survive quite comfortably, but you're not necessarily going to save a lot. ... The places now that offer really good money probably the only places really are the United Arab Emirates. The problem with that is because they pay so well, they can demand people with master's in the field ... or years of experience."
Although teachers use almost entirely English in the classroom, Heyns advises that "if you're going to live in a foreign country for a year, get to know the language, because it shows the students that you're interested in their culture as well."
Teaching English is not just for the young, says Grazyna Kacza, the student services coordinator at St. Giles Language Teaching Center. "We get people who are ready to retire or people who want a career change. There's a certain amount of freedom. You can travel, you can teach one country for a year or two years and go somewhere else, or you can teach in the U.S., and you meet people from all over the world. So it's quite fascinating."
One of the best ways to find a teaching job overseas is through the Internet. The most popular Web site is Dave's ESL Cafe (www.eslcafe.com), a mother lode of job listings, language information, and personal stories about teachers' experiences.
Before accepting a job, says Kacza, "people should find out how many hours they will teach, what the salary is, what are the materials, what's the methodology."
Disputes between an American teacher and a foreign employer, says Riera, "usually have to do with salary and benefits. In some countries, you get a lot of stories of people that go over and don't get paid what they said they were going to be paid. So I would say to go to a reputable school and make all the arrangements before you leave. ... You've got to be careful, because anybody can open a language school and then try to recruit a teacher ... so I think a written signed contract is a pretty good way to assure as best you can that things are going to be done professionally."
Transworld is a rarity among local language schools because it provides job placement for its graduates. "Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar: those are the goodies. ... I've placed people in jobs in the United Arab Emirates where they save their entire salary, and it's tax-free. If they can get into higher colleges, they make $35,000," says Ceri Rich-Odeh, the school's director and owner.
"Korea and Taiwan are enjoying a new wave of popularity because (with the current economy), Americans are so poor. A couple of years ago I couldn't get anybody placed in Taiwan or Korea. They just weren't interested. ... I can place people in Vietnam who will make $1000 a month, but they'll save 500."
The teacher training courses use either the British or the North American system. The two certificates both take four weeks to earn, and are generally considered equivalent, although certain countries or schools prefer one over the other. The British system is exemplified by CELTA, or Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, which is headquartered at Cambridge University in England. Transworld uses an American system called TESOL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Rich-Odeh rejects the claims by some of the city's language schools that the British certificate is the world standard. "I'm mainly placing Americans in jobs overseas. I'm not placing Europeans. My highest percentage is going to Western Europe, mainly to Italy or Spain. And in order for them to be competitive, they have to be American native speakers with an American certification."
Many teachers follow the career path of Heyns, who taught in South Africa, Japan and Australia before moving to San Francisco. He began teaching English while traveling because it was something he could do. "Then I suddenly found that I really enjoyed this kind of teaching because you have very highly motivated students. It's not like a high school where they have to be there. These students are keen to learn English. ... I think what happens with a lot of ESL teachers, they wake up one day and they go, `Oh my goodness, this is my profession. This is what I do.' It is a fantastic way to travel around the world and actually live in different countries. And I think for anybody who has the travel bug, it's ideal."
For more information:
San Francisco Examiner 11-15-02
Making time to play: Running toy store not all fun and games
By Max Millard
The best thing about being a toy retailer, says Dan Cerf, owner of Kindel & Graham, a 90-year-old company in the Tenderloin, is that "we're selling fun. People come in here to buy party supplies and toys because they're going to have a celebration of some sort. They're not coming in here to renew their automobile insurance or fix a dent in their car. So consequently they're in a good mood for the most part."
Phil Chan, owner of Chan's Trains & Hobbies, gets the same view at the densely packed store on Van Ness Avenue he opened 26 years ago. "The men who come in are all little boys, looking for their toy," he says. "I love it when someone finds something he really likes, and he's been looking for a long time. This business makes people happy."
At Jeffrey's Toys in South of Market, owner Mark Luhn looks back on the nearly 50 years he has been involved with the company founded by his father. "Someone's going to come into this business when he feels a connection between toys and his lifestyle. I always thought that if you x-rayed me you'd find toys in my blood," he laughs. "We're not doom and gloom. We don't have our customers bring things home to their kids and they cry. So it's a good feeling to be in this business."
These stores are among the few survivors of the independently owned toy retailers that once dominated the local market. Starting in the 1960s, the giant chains started to take over, and today, Luhn estimates, about 85% of all toys nationwide are sold by Toys R Us, Target, Wallmart and Kmart.
The discount giants have killed off their competition by their sheer purchasing power, says Luhn. A nationwide chain can buy a container of 100,000 units directly from a manufacturer in China, getting a much better wholesale price than a small retailer who buys from a distributor. This translates to big savings on major name brand items.
Luhn, Cerf and Chan have all managed to survive by the same tactic offering goods that the chains don't provide.
Leapfrogging the electronic revolution, Luhn devotes most of his store to staples of the 1950s such as Slinky, Silly Putty, Etch-a-Sketch, Hula Hoops and coloring books. To broaden his appeal, he also carries some of the trendy new items that get the most requests.
Cerf says that when he acquired his business 20 years ago, it sold the major toy brands such as Milton Bradley and Hasbro. "Then the manufacturers were not as interested in doing business with smaller companies, and created very high minimums for purchasing and reordering, which made it difficult for us," he recalls. As a result, he gradually began shifting from a toy retailer to a party supplier, and spun off a new division for his company, sfparty.com. The largest segment of his business is now balloon decorations.
Although his store is still filled with toys, they are all generic items, and are sold mainly in large quantities. "They're mostly for prizes, for people throwing carnivals and school fund-raisers," he says, relaxing in his whimsically decorated office above the store. "When you're a small company you have to zig and zag and go where you perceive the next market to be, and fill a void....I think niching for small companies is where you have to go, but you must always be very light and nimble on your feet because the niche you choose today may not be the niche of choice tomorrow."
Cerf doesn't have to work longer hours than he did 20 years ago, but "I've had to work smarter. I'm more experienced and seasoned, so I can see trends as they're developing and I can shift the company in that direction quicker now."
Chan, a retired engineer who spent his career designing freeways for Caltrans, opened his store as an extension of his hobby, and never worked there full-time. Besides train items, he stocks model cars, airplanes, boats, submarines and antique toys. He attributes the store's longevity to the huge variety of model railroading supplies from at least 30 manufacturers worldwide. Thousands of different items can be purchased individually, including train parts, tracks, bridges and decorative scenery.
"I think it's important to have everything, because the person who comes in here might want just rocks, or a tunnel portal, or different colored gravel." The discount stores, he says, "don't have the little parts, they don't have the extra track or the accessories. They usually carry the lowest quality, where we carry the full range. When we find somebody who's serious, we try to sell him the trains...that will last a lifetime." For his youngest customers he sets up a layout of wooden track. "Kids 2 and 3 come and just push the little wooden train around, and they don't want to leave."
The toy retailing business requires a lot of specialized knowledge that can be learned only by working at a toy store. This usually means starting as a sales clerk for about $10 an hour. Then a person should absorb as much as possible about manufacturers, distributors, trends, merchandising, displaying, inventory and accounting.
A successful owner, says Cerf, should be able to earn $80,000 to $120,000 a year. To reach that level, he recommends at least a 5000-square-foot store. An employee with management duties and responsibilities can expect to be in the $50,000 to $60,000 range.
Cerf says that if he were entering the business today, "I would start with something small that I could afford and manage, and use it as a stepping stone to move to a larger space. I wouldn't start a business unless I had at least six months' worth of income in the bank to live on.... I would move to an area that had the most amount of kids per capita, like one of the suburbs."
The last element for success, says Cerf, is to have an excellent Web site to sell items directly through the Internet or by mail order. "I would have my Web site established before I opened my door, and I would have that working really well. Bricks and clicks would be a great way to go."
For more information: www.sfparty.com