Julia Fischer's Play Library
I’m totally in awe the moment I set foot inside the Play Library. The stress I had over a traffic jam just moments ago melts away as I gape at the miles of quirky black-and-white drawings on the walls, a perfect backdrop for hundreds of toys, costumes, games, and activities in every color imaginable. Two little boys and their dad play at a table in the back of the shop. Julia Fischer, founder, is pretty unfazed at the fact that I’m pretty much drooling. She’s not indifferent; she just knows it’s awesome and she rocks it. She asks if we want a tour, and I manage to switch on my recorder before I resume geeking out.
Okay, tell us all about what’s going on here.
At its very core, the Play Library is just like a regular library, but instead of books, we lend out games and toys. We have over a thousand items. It’s totally free to come in and play, and if you wanna take stuff out, there’s a small membership fee. It’s really just an accountability fee; it’s not enough to make us money. It’s just so that you feel like if you’re paying into something, you have a better shot of taking care of the item.
All the stuff in the glass cases are toys that were invented in Cincinnati. So like, Play-Doh was invented here; the Magic 8 Ball was invented here; the first Easy-Bake Oven was invented here. We’ll have a rotating exhibit at least four times a year.
Do the kids take an interest in the history at all?
Definitely more the adults – adults that are from here. People walk in and they’re like, “Oh my god, I remember playing with that!” Especially Hall of Justice ‘cause it’s modeled after the Museum Center, which I would never have known until I moved here.
Where are you from?
I’m from New York, but then I spent a big part of my adult life in LA, so kind of both places.
This room is the room with all the games, so we’ve got our like, very complicated gamer-y games over here – things that you have to watch a YouTube video to even figure out how to set it up. And then we have a bunch of game-night games over there – more grownup, adult-y kind of stuff like DrunkQuest and Boxers or Briefs?, Cards Against Humanity. We have a bunch of puzzles. We have older video game systems that you have to set up at your house; we don’t have a TV. But you know, some kids have never had access to that stuff, so it’s really cool for them. We do have this Raspberry Pi and we have like 600 retro video games downloaded onto it and we have a projector, so for our game nights, we’ll turn it on.
Oh, and then there are the swings. Each hold 800 pounds – adults always look at me like, “Can I sit on this?” We specifically designed everything in here for grownups to use, too, ‘cause I hate when adults are like, “Oh, I’m too old for that.” What happened? Why? What happened to you that you became too old to play and have fun? So I wanted to make sure that everything was equally as accessible and interesting to grownups as it is to kids.
[Settling down on the swings. I’m definitely not too old for this. Meanwhile, a library-goer comes to tell us his brother has a “pooper” and they have to go home.]
So we’ve seen the shop; tell us about yourself.
So. Me information. I initially went to college thinking that I was gonna be an archaeologist. I actually wanted to be a housekeeper ‘cause I love cleaning, but my parents are doctors and they were like, “That sounds awesome, but maybe you wanna see what else is out there.” So I decided on archaeology because you can sweep things, so it was still something. [Laughing.]
I started out there. I’m not a good test-taker, though; I’m dyslexic and it’s hard for me to read stuff. We had to take Intro to Anthropology; it was a giant lecture class and I didn’t do well ‘cause it was all test-based, so I decided I was failing, life was horrible, I couldn’t make it through school.
My friend was in the art school, and I was like, “All you have to do is draw. I can do that.” So I transferred to art school. Turns out art school is much harder than just drawing. I did stick with it, and I double-majored in advertising and graphic design. But, everything I was drawing was really cute. I couldn’t get away from cute. So when I graduated from school, I was like, “Well, what can I do with this cute stuff?” I started working at this really large ad agency. I really wasn’t happy, so I quit that after seven months, and I went around to various toy companies, ‘cause I was like, “Well, you know, drawing cute stuff…toys…that’s good.” I just asked them what I needed to do in order to do this, and they trained me. Obviously this was a long time ago, because I don’t think the world works that way anymore. [Laughing.] I don’t know that you can just walk into some place and get a job.
So I met a guy, and we ended up moving to Los Angeles together. I wanted to move, ‘cause I grew up in New York, so I was like, “I just wanna see what else there is.” And the guy that I was with at the time is a TV writer, so for him it was either New York or LA, so I was like, “LA sounds great.” All the toy companies are out there, so it was fantastic. I started working for a bunch of companies: one, JAKKS Pacific; I’ve done work for Matel; I’ve done some work for Disney. I started as a designer, but it turns out I’m not very good at designing so I started doing project management. I got to go to China and Hong Kong and go to the factories and work with them on design, and that was a life-changing experience to see what that’s like.
Anyway. So that’s sorta how the toy design stuff started. Walmart is the number-one seller of toys, and in order to reach their very low price points, we have to make things out of really inexpensive materials, and so I knew that the things I was making were gonna break in three months, and I didn’t feel good about what I was doing. I felt like I was making colorful landfill.
This was around the time that share models started – Uber, Airbnb, that kind of thing – so I was like, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a place where all kids had access to the highest quality toys and games?” So that’s how this idea came about. I started doing some research, and I found that Los Angeles has the largest toy loan program in the United States. But I was asking around to all my toy friends, and no one had ever heard of it. The reason is because it’s through the government, and they have a stock of toys that they give to various nonprofits that those nonprofits can lend out to the people that belong to it, so like a Boys and Girls Club or something. So unless you belong to that Boys and Girls Club, you can’t access it. But to me, the word “library” means universal. So like, if I were homeless or if I was a quadrillionaire, I could walk into our public library and I’d be welcome there. So I didn’t understand why these libraries weren’t that way.
That’s one aspect of why Play Library exists, and the other is that, because of my parents’ work, they were away from home a lot. As I was leaving for college, my mom felt guilty that she hadn’t been around enough, but I don’t remember my childhood that way at all, and I think the reason is ‘cause when my parents were around, we played games together. It’s quality of time over quantity. I remember my childhood as always being with my parents playing games. I don’t remember the times that they weren’t there, honestly.
So I’m hoping that since there’s so many single-parent families, and now with all these families where both parents have to work, just come, grab a game, go play with your kid for an hour, and that’s what they’re gonna remember.
So, how did you get to Cincinnati?
I was dating a guy who got into a residency program in Cincinnati, so we moved here. I had brought boxes of toys, thinking I was gonna start this business out here. When we split up, I was gonna move back to LA, but a friend of mine here is friends with Eric Avner at People’s Liberty, so he had heard about the grant opportunity. He was like, “Just stay here. Just apply for this thing. If you don’t get it, you can move home, but if you move home before you apply, I’m gonna steal your idea and I’m gonna get it.”
I was like, “Okay, I’ll start.” So I applied, and I got it, and that’s the reason that I’m still here. I feel like in no other city could have done this with this much success in such a little amount of time. It’s more affordable here, and also this city is so excited about new ideas and new businesses and so welcoming of all that stuff. It’s an incomparable amount of support here, whereas in a place like New York or LA, I would’ve just been lost among all the other things.
We opened this location in March, but I had won the People’s Liberty Globe Grant so we had a space in their storefront space last summer. So that was very successful. I say that without knowing how to measure success, other than to say that like kids would break down crying when they found out that it was time to leave. I measure that as success. [Laughing.] That means they loved it, you know?
So when we closed there, people kept going back to People’s Liberty and asking what happened to us and emailing me and finding out when we were gonna reopen. So on the little money that I had still from the grant and my own savings, I just decided to open this in the hopes that the moment our doors opened to the public, the money would start pouring in the door, and people would walk by and just throw money at us, ‘cause that’s how life works.
But the support of our members has been our best funding. We have about 70. We had someone walk in with a thousand dollars in cash and say, “I want this for other families to be able to use this place.”
Oh my gosh! What did you do?
I spread it out and fanned it. That’s what I did. I’d never held a thousand dollars in cash before. [Laughing.] But obviously I profusely thanked her.
One of our other members – we have a lot of little kids come in here so parents have strollers – has offered us however many hundreds of dollars it costs to get a little ramp for outside. Our members have just been absolutely fantastic. Now we have funding also from the Mayerson Foundation and we have some funding from TriHealth.
We take all kinds of donations. If a game is missing pieces, we’ll take it, because we probably have the same game and we could use the pieces. We’ll take used sports equipment as long as it wasn’t sweated on. And obviously lightly used toys or games.
Can you tell us some stories of the day-to-day things you see here?
So, out there, gentrification is happening and there’s nothing that I can do to stop it. That health clinic right there, it’s a low-income/homeless clinic, and the condos on this side of us are selling for $800,000. We’re in a really fascinating neighborhood. These families come in and the kids start like talking to each other and playing together, and the next thing you know, the parents are talking, and for a moment, everyone forgets what’s going on out there. In here they’re just completely equal, and that’s my favorite part of this place.
I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about not being a natural test-taker. It often seems like our society has one definition of how someone should learn, which can make it tough for those who don’t learn that way. Do you think that plays into what you’re trying to do here?
It probably ties into it a lot. Dyslexia when I was a child was not understood. Also, I had ADD, and back then people were just starting to understand what that was. So I definitely think that people who have those differing abilities end up doing things that are more creative because they don’t have to read to do something like this. But, you do have to read in order to play games. I think there’s so much literacy and stuff to learn through not just opening a book, which I very rarely do. However, if I have to read rules to a game, like no prob! It’s short; I got this. So that’s how I really learned to read was through playing.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
My mom was one of 10 women in her med school class, and at that time she had to fight to even get into med school because it “wasn’t for women.” She didn’t get in for like two years, so she went to grad school and kept getting A’s and every year would go back and be like, “I don’t understand why I’m not getting in. I don’t understand why I’m not getting in,” and finally they were just like, “Okay! We’ll let you in.” So that aspect of her, I wanted to be that way. And if you asked my mom, she wouldn’t be proud of herself. She’s just like, “Well, yeah. How else would I have gotten into med school?” She wouldn’t have thought at any moment that she was heroic or strong or anything.
Check out Play Library’s Facebook page for events you just cannot miss: Harry Potter’s birthday party, for example; 21+ game night; and water balloons and parachutes in Washington Park.