The Valley’s high proportion of young people includes very young people: infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Certain Valley businesses cater to that population, helping families keep their children clothed and entertained. Whether shopping for gifts for a friend’s newborn or playing beloved auntie and taking the tikes to the zoo for the day or searching for dress clothes for a wedding’s little ring bearer and flower girl, you will find what you need for the kids all across the Rio Grande Valley.
Twenty-five years ago, Colleen Albury was running an airport gift shop and realized Harlingen needed a store carrying baby clothes and paraphernalia. She opened Just for Babies to supply the carriage trade with everything from cribs and christening gowns to bibs and baby carriers. Few women can walk into the shop filled with tiny dresses and baby blankets without saying, “Oh, how cute!”
Nowadays, a few of Albury’s customers mention that their mothers shopped at Just for Babies 20-25 years ago for their own baby outfits.
Despite growing competition from big box stores, Albury said her customers return for baby gifts for friends and family. “They like the one-on-one attention they get here. They browse, and we’ve laughed together,” said Albury. The shop keeps a baby shower and baby registry so newborns do not receive duplicate gifts. “They pick out the gift, and we wrap it for them.” Besides high chairs, bedding, potty chairs and carriages, the shop carries toys, which they assemble so busy parents don’t have to.
Changes in the world of babies include the spread of high tech, all-season strollers and combi-strollers. Bottle coolers and changing clutches are this year’s hot items. Albury noted over the years the shop has expanded into clothing for pre-schoolers.
Gail Ewing, grandmother of four, opened Zoodles 18 months ago, with the theme “Wild about clothes and wilder about children.” “My whole life I’ve been interested in having a store. I love retail. It’s fun, different from anything I’ve ever done, and it is stretching me. I’m very service-oriented and here I feel like I’m serving,” babies, children and moms. “This is what God led me to do. I’m finding out what the plan is bit by bit.”
Once Ewing opened Zoodles, her first customers told her how much McAllen needed a store like Zoodles. Most of the shoppers are young mothers buying for their own children, from infants to about 10 years old, or for the children of family and friends. “We have lots of registries, baby and birthdays,” she said. Besides the wide range of children’s clothing sizes, the store displays dinosaur backpacks, indoor tipis, kinetic blocks and sand kits, and Carolle dolls.
Zoodles is definitely a family affair. “My daughter Mallory (Latham) is my right hand, and she is managing the store. Being a young mom, she is very good at researching new toys. My husband, who is a CPA, has been Santa on Saturdays and helped with the vision of the store.” Her son-in-law, until recently an Air Force pilot, pitches in as shopkeeper when needed. A daughter-in-law in Philadelphia does the website, while family in Denton handles the online store.
“I know you have to surround yourself with great people,” Ewing said. “You need to empower them. Then you see employees excel and using their gifts, having passion for what they do. Without that, you don’t have a great business.”
Ewing has teamed up with local photographer Linda Blackwell, since people want portraits of their children. In the bargain, she found connections to others and a wider community. Even with Zoodles thriving, Ewing aims to make it better. “Everywhere I go, I visit children’s stores to get ideas.”
Chaco’s Kids is celebrating its 20th year in business, providing formal wear for boys and girls, ranging from baptismal gowns to gowns for young damas at quinceaneras. Nagle and Kitty Tueme and their daughter Paty help mothers select first communion dresses and suits as well as the gowns and mini-tuxes needed for ring-bearers, flower girls and the littlest bridesmaids.
Chaco’s carries casual wear for kids, but 95% of their business is selling dressy dresses for little girls who love looking like princesses at birthday parties, weddings and family events. “The spring is the busiest time for us with the demand for first communion clothes,” Paty Tueme said at the downtown McAllen shop. Behind her, clear plastic covers keep the rows of colorful, fancy dresses pristine until a little girl is ready to be dressed up.
Adriana Davalos, a teacher turned stay-at-home mom, had little luck finding things for her young sons to do. She decided Harlingen needed a privately run, indoor playground and opened Little D’s Party and Play downtown in October. Her husband built the brightly painted wooden train and pirate ship which the children clamber over.
Tots are whirlwinds in motion at the indoor playground: they pedal Fred Flintstone cars, jump inside the bouncing castle, rock a few times on the rocking horse and climb up to the slides. Mothers and grandmothers sit outside the play area, networking or knitting, when they are not actively involved with the kids playing, for example, in the tiny grocery store.
“We just found out about this place, and now we are going to come at least once a week and let them run,” said Lupita Hernandez, keeping an eye on her granddaughter on a gray afternoon. “If they go outside, there’s a lot of mosquitos and gnats after the rain.”
Diana Bishop, a grandmother of two, said, “A friend of mine posted on Facebook that it was a really fun place. I came today because of the inclement weather. This is a safe place to be. We’ve had a good time.” Even after five hours roaming the playground, her pre-schoolers wouldn’t agree that it was time to go home. Davalos told the children when they came back there would be more fun things to do.
The party aspect, including baby showers and baptismal parties, has ramped up, Davalos said. She’s already hosted numerous birthday parties, with balloons and clean-up service included in the four-hour rental fee. “The great thing about my business is that I have my children with me.”
The Brownsville Children’s Museum welcomes 40,000 visitors a year, either on family visits or on field trips to the region’s only stand-alone museum for kids. The interactive and hands-on activities let kids play at being Dr. Bones or a TV weather forecaster. They can work in the Construction Zone or Under the Sea or on a Texas Farm. They can even play cook, cashier or customer in a miniature café. The menu of activities encourages kids to use their imaginations to explore the world.
In McAllen, IMAS offers the three dimensional Science on a Sphere which is guaranteed to fascinate kids of all ages. The NASA-designed exhibit opens up the earth and sky in ways that captivate the entire audience. Bringing science back home, the Watershed Journey invites kids to get their hands wet understanding the Rio Grande and its impact on their lives.
Speaking of wet, children from six months on up can take swim lessons at Aqua–Tots’ two McAllen locations. Pool birthday parties, with every detail arranged by the swim school staff, let adults relax and enjoy the event, watching tadpoles and frogs splashing to their hearts’ content.
January 2015 cover story by Eileen Mattei