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Elaine and Willis Smith are in the business of interesting occasions.
Occasions, for example, that call for a rubber chicken, a cotton-candy machine, a motorized duck pond, or an artificial horse named Charlie.
“He doesn’t eat much,” Mr. Smith said, patting the brown statue on the head.
Charlie’s not much of an interview, either. But Mr. Smith and his wife are cheerful as they talk about Toledo Central Distributors, a party supply and special events firm they've owned for 40 years.
Central Distributors might be the epitome of a mom-and-pop business — the Smiths are mom and pop eight times over, after all.
Now, partially thanks to the urging of those now-grown children, they’re looking at retirement.
“Our kids are saying, ‘Come on, Mom and Dad, we want you to spend time with us.’ It’s time,” Mrs. Smith said recently with a laugh. “He turned 81 in April and I’ll be 80 this month. We’ve been here basically 40 years. We’re tired.”
Central Distributors was started 50 years ago by Joe and Irene Podz, who lived across the street from the Smiths in Sylvania Township. At the time, Mr. Smith was a truck driver who seemed to have a habit of driving for companies that went out of business.
When Mr. Podz’s wife died, Mr. Podz asked Mr. Smith to come to work for him. It was steady work. Soon after, he asked Mrs. Smith to come work in the firm’s office.
Within six months, the Smiths had agreed to buy the company.
At that time, their business primarily came from school carnivals and church festivals. They also did a sizable business selling decorations such as balloons and crepe paper, and party supplies such as balloons, cups, and plates.
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They operated their business on some simple principles. Never talk poorly of competitors. Treat everyone fairly and offer everyone the same price. Don’t engage in gossip. Never be upset about a small sale, because that person might be back weeks or years later and make a big one.
The couple, now married 60 years, kept so busy that they sometimes didn’t get a chance to talk until they got home at night.
At one point, the business had seven full-time employees. Now that’s down to one.
Central Distributors still does much of what it always has, but the Smiths said two things have hurt them over the years.
An abundance of big-box stores selling party essentials took away a good part of that business, and a lack of volunteers at school and church parties has cut down the number of games they’re able to rent out.
Still, they say the decision to close — they’re anticipating shutting down sometime in September — has more to do with them wanting to have time to relax and the ability to travel and visit children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren than it does a lack of business.
They still have well-worn clipboards full of orders lining the wall, and they say that over the last year or so they’ve started to notice more people actively trying to buy local.
“There’s a lot of potential out there, but it needs young people with young ideas, with an online operation,” Mrs. Smith said.
A big interest in casino or Monte Carlo-themed parties has been a boon for the business, which rents out poker tables, roulette wheels, and other gambling games.
Still, many of their products are simple carnival games that seem to be from a bygone era.
They rent out things such as ring-toss games, cork-gun games, miniature golf, and old tires hung from easels to throw a football through. Mr. Smith dug out a fairly large flip-frog game.
“Kids like to do something like this, hit it and they can flip the frog and jump it in the box,” he happily explained.
Central Distributors also has a dizzying array of numbered wheels, some as large as five feet across.
Mr. Smith has handcrafted and painted many of the games and wheels himself. That includes a race game in which marbles plink down through dozens of golf tees in a board.
“It’s a fun game, but you could just about go crazy when you got through putting those pegs in there,” Mr. Smith said.
Though they’re not fancy, games that allow everyone to get a prize are likely to never go out of style with kids, they say.
Similarly, they find that kids often are still drawn to the simplest of trinkets. “I would say to our grandchildren, ‘You can have one thing, whatever you want, pick it out,’ ” Mr. Smith said. “They could have a $50 stuffed animal, and invariably, it’s some small thing they want. Through the eyes of children is a lot different than adults.”
Being in business for 40 years, some of those children have come back as adults planning parties for their own kids. Both Mr. and Mrs. Smith say they’ll most miss seeing their customers who became friends.
They have listed the business and building, which is on Sylvania Avenue between Douglas and Secor, up for sale. They’d like to see it sell all together and remain in business, perhaps even staying on to help guide the new owners.
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