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Toysmith out of an old-fashioned mold

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Bob Kierstead is a man of few words, but his handiwork speaks for itself -- rows of hobby horses (childrens' to adult sizes), doll houses with movable walls and stairs, doggies, trucks, and yo-yos. Mr. Kierstead is a toymaker after the old school: no plastics, no robots or superheroes, not even colorful paint jobs, except for a little red fire engine. It's native hardwoods, maple and birch, for him and a natural finish of nontoxic urethane.

Nothing could be further from the array of high-tech playthings that deck the shelves of Toys ``R'' Us and other mass-volume outlets this holiday season. And no one could be further from the image of a sharply calculating toy merchant than the amiable, soft-spoken, and firmly small-townish Mr. Kierstead. Father of two teen-aged children and chief of the local volunteer fire department, he got into toymaking when his construction business slowed a few years ago. Crafting toys, he says with t ypical economy of words, was simply ``something that interested him.''

That was 12 years ago. The little gray-shingled factory and shop, just a short walk from the remarkably picturesque center of this tiny town, has been turning out simply designed and nearly unbreakable toys and children's furniture ever since. Business hasn't ever really boomed, but the quality of Kierstead's work -- evident in each painstakingly smoothed, fitted, and glued item -- has won a steady trickle of customers.

That trickle could build to a stream, according to Bob Lyons, Kierstead's chief (and only) salesman. Mr. Lyons went into what he describes as reluctant ``semi-retirement'' a few years ago after a lifetime in sales. On hearing that the local toymaker needed a hand with marketing, he was ready. It's a perfect match, he says, ``Bob here likes to make them, but doesn't like to sell them -- it works out well.''

Lyons had good responses from toy dealers in New Jersey and Florida on a recent trip. He has also taken Kierstead's creations to industry trade shows, where they've been well received. ``Oh yes, I think it could take off,'' says the stocky, bespectacled sales manager, who fits the little old toymaker image a bit better than the lanky, dark-haired Kierstead. ``Plastic! They're getting tired of it.'' Lyons points to a nearby wooden toy stove and sink. ``They'll last two or three generations.''

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