The Enduring Imagination of Henry Bear’s Park

This local toy store chainlet has succeeded for 48 years by centering creativity in the business of play.

Photo by Pat Piasecki


Henry Bear’s Park

Bradlees. Child World. Toys “R” Us. These shops were once staples of a Boston childhood that have since been gobbled up by e-commerce. Only quirky Henry Bear’s Park has stood the test of time since the first location opened in Cambridge 48 years ago, selling classic, gender neutral toys—and, crucially, wrapping them in cheery yellow paper for party-bound parents.

So how did this small-but-mighty local chainlet—which takes its name from a 1976 children’s book about a young cub who tends to a park while his dad is on a balloon trip—manage to outlast the big-box competition? Brookline dad of two Kas Sharma, who bought the store from longtime owner Sally Lesser in 2013, has some ideas. “Sally had a very specific philosophy about the role of play in childhood and human development…with a child’s imagination, creativity, and exploration as the center of the play experience,” Sharma says. “An example that usually captures this nicely is: We have nothing against Ninja Turtles. We grew up with them. But we say that, instead of buying a Ninja Turtle, we’d prefer if you bought a turtle, gave it a name, and gave it a story.”

Sharma’s own story reflects a common struggle among parents of young kids: Before taking over Henry Bear’s Park, he was a new dad working at the tech company MathWorks, feeling restless and wondering what it was all for. “It’s that classic corporate job scene where everything’s great. You’re making good money. It’s prestigious. But it stopped being fulfilling or challenging,” he says.

Sharma and his toddler were already Henry Bear’s customers when he met Lesser to talk about the opportunity of taking over the shops. When the conversation veered into a rumination on Sharma’s philosophy of business as play, Lesser knew she’d found a successor with both a sense of business and fun.

Since 2013, Sharma has been steadily expanding the Henry Bear’s empire: Today, there are nine outposts in family-friendly locales throughout Greater Boston, stocked with non-mainstream toys fueled by imagination, such as fairy and princess costumes, puzzles, figurines, classic board games, and an abundance of stuffed animals. One concession to the times: The stores now stock Pokémon cards. “We didn’t want to keep wagging the finger all the time, saying, ‘This is good, this is bad.’ Because that in itself goes against the idea of play,” Sharma says.

One thing all the locations have in common, according to Sharma? A sense of familiarity that keeps parents and grandparents coming back. “I do think having a physical, joyful experience is the secret here,” Sharma says. “Online, large, massmarket retailers like Amazon have a role to play. But if you want the experience of walking into a store and seeing friendly faces? That’s where we thrive.”

Cambridge and other locations,

This story first ran in the print edition of Boston’July 2024 issue, as part of the Best of Boston 50: Kids package.

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