Toy Story: Why Jack Cohen Ditched the Rat Race

by Audra Joseph

In the beloved children’s movie Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a quirky Dustin Hoffman reminds us: “We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. Thirty-seven seconds, well used, is a lifetime.” His observation prompts a question: What makes for a lifetime worth living?

For Jack Cohen, the answer came at age 23 after walking away from a career in engineering.

“I wasn’t happy at the job I was at,” Jack says, reminiscing about long hours spent behind a desk in a windowless office space. Cringing at the memory of meaningless sketches and mathematical equations, he adds, “I had to find something else, I just couldn’t stand it.”

Today, Jack heads to work with a smile on his face. Approaching his 43rd year as owner of S.W. Randall Toyes, Pittsburgh’s largest specialty toy and gift store, he extends his gratitude to the community of Squirrel Hill for helping him find his niche in life.

“I like coming to work, I can’t just sit at home,” he says, explaining his choice to spend six of seven days out of the week behind the register in the store’s Downtown location – the second of three stores scattered throughout the city. You can find him in Squirrel Hill a few evenings every week.

The coziness of the original store mirrors the ambiance of the neighborhood in which it resides. Its floor-to-ceiling window display provides a generous preview of the playful wonderland inside. Splashed midway across the glass, is a vivid blue childish font that reads “S.W. Randall,” followed by “Toyes ● Giftes” printed over and over again across the bottom.

Jack has been nicknamed “The Toy Keeper.” His extraordinary kingdom and warm hospitality is a treasure to all guests, regardless of their age. Jack has witnessed fire-breathing dragons, dress-me-up dolls, and the choo-choo from a prized model train sparking nostalgia among the countless fathers and mothers that enter his store. The hodgepodge of unique gizmos and gadgets that line the walls of his petite Squirrel Hill shop swallows all those who dare to enter.

You can call his style old-fashioned. “It makes it magical when [customers] come in,” he says. “The parents love the old stuff they grew up with, and they buy it for their kids.”



Magical is the perfect way to describe what Jack has created.

“People love coming here on the weekend,” he tells me. “Every Saturday it’s all families.”

And he wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Jack classifies S.W. Randall as a family store. “That’s why they like us,” he says.

The storefront of S. W. Randall promises a wealth of colorful toys.  Photo by Alyssa Kramer

The storefront of S. W. Randall promises a wealth of colorful toys.
Photo by Alyssa Kramer

While he’s certainly right about that, it’s not the only thing that’s kept him in business for 43 years and counting. His “stuff” can’t be found just anywhere; this Toy Keeper is very particular about his trade.

With four youngsters at home, toys were a large part of Jack’s life even before he became a master of them. He recalls very few weekends without at least one birthday party to attend, and at minimum, one child to buy for. Today, Jack can joke about the fact that he and his wife Linda “could never find anything for the kids on their birthdays.” He would find himself asking, where in the world are all the good toys?

Sure, there were always safety nets. Like the brain-buster Simon game, or that ooey-gooey green slime that parents feared would go from jar to wall décor in 5 seconds or less. But by the ‘70’s, even the Whoopee Cushion had seen better days. Times called for a change, and in order for a change to occur, Jack and Linda had to take matters into their own hands.

The ambitious couple knew there was a solution to this problem. In the hope of finding it, they traveled to the Big Apple to do some homework. There, they studied countless toy stores and attended as many trade shows as possible. With arms tired from lugging brochures, and heads filled to the brim with advice, they returned to Pittsburgh with the dream of creating something just as special on their own.

Today, Jack takes great pride in the toys that can be found in his shop. After all, he considers them a reflection of his appreciation for the industry, and all those a part of it. Smiling, he says, “People love our store, their eyes just light up.”

Meditating for a moment on the past, he adds, “People liked us right away because there was a need.”

A need, as he had earlier mentioned, for something out of the ordinary – extraordinary, if you will. For 43 years, it’s led to the one thing that remains on his mind: “Look for the stuff that nobody has.” His stuff isn’t necessarily what’s popular, but rather “the stuff the mass-markets don’t have.”

Upcoming companies, particularly those of smaller-scale, are always on his radar. In contrast, mass-produced goods from the U.S. fail to hold his interest. He believes his customers feel the same way. He’d rather not buy from big-name brands like Hasbro and Mattel.

With confidence, he says, “If we were gone, there would be no one to replace us.”

So, if you ever happen to stop by 5856 Forbes Avenue, don’t expect Mr. Potato Head or Malibu Barbie to be hanging around. Instead, anticipate the unusual. The owner has an eye for it.

Wearing a dress shirt and tie, and sometimes jacket, Jack stands behind a register and sells toys. Why not spend so much time at work, if work is filled with play?

“I love being around people,” he says.