Kai Rady: The big kid

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Photo: Elli Williams Photo: Elli Williams

When Kai Rady came to Charlottesville in 1974 with her growing family, her first real challenge wasn’t finding the right schools or dealing with a picky eater—it was a lack of toy stores.

Rady said her first child was a very active and curious infant. “I was always looking for new things to stimulate him,” she said. She vividly recalled an article from Ms. Magazine (“a terrific list of at least 100 items, 90 percent of which were not in the area—including LEGO!”), and realized all the other young parents she met in town were having the same trouble entertaining and educating their kids. In no time at all, she opened a toy shop in her home on Ivy Road and Shenanigans was born.

Over the years, Rady’s priorities in toy-seeking have remained the same. “I’m looking always for play value,” Rady said. “A toy can be very educational…but if they’re not going to play with it, it’s not [useful]. It has to appeal to a child’s sensibilities.”

Rady lets the five senses drive many of her toy selections. “Children appreciate beautiful things, just like adults,” Rady said. She seeks out toys that look or feel good—even toys that simply sound fun, like the noise of suction cups. She also feels that things like playhouses and tents, which allow children to mimic adults and foster independence, are important additions to any playroom.

Rady fondly remembers her own toy-filled childhood. “We had a very toy-rich environment at home,” said Rady, who grew up in New England with two very playful parents. Some of her favorite memories include beloved babydolls and riding her horse, an independence that seems lightyears away in the modern world. “That’s why so many new toys have been invented,” Rady said, “because kids don’t have the freedom they did.”

At first, Rady believed running the store would be a holdover job until she eventually entered graduate school for English, or possibly law. Prior to moving to Charlottesville, she had worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency, an experience she likened to the popular television show “Mad Men.” Far as Shenanigans may have been from her roots, the shop grew quickly and she soon found herself leasing space in the Barracks Road Shopping Center.

After several years there, Shenanigans outgrew its walls once more and moved into a new location on West Main Street. So far, the move has proved a successful one. Always thinking like a parent, Rady was able to widen aisles for stroller access, lower shelves so parents can keep an eye on tots throughout the store, and increase seating for weary caretakers. Improvements at every turn simply make it easier for her to share her knowledge and love of the business. “Play is children’s work,” Rady said. “If they had no toys, they would still play, but we can expand their opportunities for play.”

Rady’s passion for toys is ultimately a passion for children—one she’s held onto nearly 40 years after her first steps into the industry. Shenanigans may be an Irish term for mischief, but in Rady’s world, it’s about fostering young minds. She said with conviction, “We’re raising people, not just raising children.”—Danielle Bricker

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