By DOUG CLOUGH
LE MARS - Albert Schulz, owner and operator of Le Mars Toy Store, has an unflappable approach to greeting his farm toy retail operation's customers.
Albert Schulz, right, shows customers a model Minneapolis-Moline tractor at his toy store in Le Mars.
"I break the ice, first," said Schulz. "If a customer wears John Deere green, I'll may ask him if I can sell him a red tractor.
"If his wife is with him, I might inquire if he's been good this year and what's on his Christmas list."
It's a humorous approach that appeals to his customer base.
Fun aside - if only for a moment - Schulz said farm toys are big for a retail and family-oriented business.
Not always taking on the the lighter approach, he recently welcomed a Lake Benton, Minn., family to his Le Mars downtown basement store by tapping into their heritage.
While the family was looking over his toy store's tractor display case, he asked, "I see you're checking out the 900 Moline; is that what your family had on the farm?"
Getting to know customers is Schulz's specialty, a forte he built along with the largest diversified farm toy store in the country.
"Others might sell more volume," said Schulz. "We are the most diversified. I stock a varied inventory of detailed, quality farm toys and their parts.
"I also make custom-built toys and specialize in accurate restoration. On the surface, a customer might seem to be looking for a new tractor.
"By the time we finish talking, I've found that they really just want to restore a toy that's been in their family for years."
His office is placed neatly between his workshop and his formidable inventory of 1/16 and 1/64 scale farm toys. He ebbs and flows between projects and the customers he's served for more than 16 years.
Schulz got involved in the farm toy business without any intent to be so.
"I have an ag business where I do bookkeeping and analytical work for banks and farmers," he said. "When I first started, I had a ground-level business with a storefront. I decided to fill my window space with my personal toy collection.
"Soon people started asking me if toys from my own collection were for sale. They were people who wanted the quality, detailed toys.
"I decided to take in a small inventory to sell each Christmas. Pretty soon, my customers were asking, 'Can you fix this toy? It's been in my family for generations.'"
Schulz eventually became a full-time farm toy dealer and parts supplier, all the while maintaining his bookkeeping store.
"I also have a cattle and grain farm," said Schulz. "I guess I'm a crazy multi-tasker. I take on special projects, customizing 1/64 semis for the Plymouth County Fair for the past 14 years and 1/16 farm tractors for a well-known radio station.
"People are very specific about what they want. Once a person gets a custom-built toy from us - and it may only be at Christmas time - they get the customer toy collecting fever and they come by on a regular basis."
When it comes to customization, the toymaker said that he always gets asked what a toy will eventually be worth.
"I always tell customers not to worry if the piece will gain value or not," said Schulz. "Enjoy what you collect first and foremost. Don't try to outguess your enjoyment of a toy.
"I also encourage people to keep a toy that means something to them rather than sell it, no matter what the worth, make sure you keep something to remember your grandpa or anyone else who has passed on a farm toy. These are heirlooms in the finest sense."
Le Mars Toy Store often accepts trades and buys collectibles that Schulz feels he can sell.
Restoration is also key to the diversity that the toy store brings to the toy table.
"A couple came in with a family toy that they wanted restored," said Schulz. "It took me over a year to bring it back to its original condition. The toy belonged to their son who had passed away.
"The father said that seeing it in its original condition made one of their best Christmases. I reward myself by making others happy."
Schulz owns his own lathes and mills and outsources custom laser work for such detailed items as tractor weights.
The toy store owner, who has an agriculture degree and a masters in agricultural economics, said that he has sold toys in 12 foreign countries and most of the U.S. states. 'I've had a customer travel 500 miles just to check out an item," Schulz said. "I do a few farm toy shows.
"I have a 32-foot race car trailer that I use for larger shows. However, most of my business is customer recommendations. My wife once said, 'You can't go anywhere without being recognized. You know people from Rapid City through Illinois.'"
The hottest brand of tractor?
"More John Deere toys are made than any other," said Schulz. "None really outsells another, though; each has its own loyal following. What is popular in real-life farming is popular in toys for that same farmer."
Schulz' affinity for the farm family is also carried over to the surrounding community.
The Le Mars Toy Store owner is known for donating toys for raffles for local fire departments, EMT squads and other community organizations. "I can be a softy," said Schulz.
The toy store holds a three-day customer appreciation event for patrons each March.
"I get 700 people on average who stop by. People come from as far as 10 hours away or more to attend."
During the holiday season, The Le Mars Toy Store is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
New purchases, parts, customization, and restoration inquiries can be made by calling (712) 546-4305.