The Story of Five Little Monkeys

08 January 2014 Written by  Stephanie Sala
Published in January 2014 Articles

Following graduation from college I intended to become a teacher. I was applying to graduate schools when 9/11 happened.

My brother, Andre, was in Manhattan at the time and was out of touch with us for a day that seemed to last forever. The horrible pictures and videos filled my heart with a long-term desire to spend my time near home. I wanted to play an active role in the lives of my family during whatever time was given me.

Prologue to Five Monkeys
Perhaps I inherited a gene for business because my parents were both entrepreneurs. When she was pregnant with me, Mom and a partner opened a children’s clothing manufacturing business. Dad was an artist and then became the designer of such playthings as the popular Whoozit toys. He manufactured and sold them. Dad is French. We would periodically return to the land of his birth and visit little shops and boutique toy stores throughout France and Western Europe.

Mom suggested I open a toy store. I laughed and told her that she had to be crazy to think that I would do such a thing. However, I have always enjoyed giving gifts more than receiving them. I put a lot of love and care into choosing a particular gift that will be exciting for the recipient to open. We were usually in France for my younger brother Andre’s birthday, so I would visit one of those delightful little shops where I would put a lot of thought into picking out something that would be perfect for him and then intently watch as the staff wrapped it. Those were some of my best childhood memories.

Mom suspected that I would be good at business because she remembered that even as a young child I would open my own play businesses and sell to employees in mom’s store, and to friends and family members whatever barrettes, headbands, or cookies I was making at that particular time. I would attempt to imitate Mom’s business practices. When selling cookies,for example, I would add up the cost of whatever butter, sugar, eggs, flour, spices, chocolate, nuts, or milk I had used and then figure out how much product I would have to sell before I actually began to turn a profit.

I took my make-believe businesses to the next level when Molly, the daughter of my Mom’s partner, and I would convert the conference room in Mom’s building into an office for our detective agency. Molly and I were private eyes with a business plan that focused upon finding things. For an appropriate fee we would find whatever husbands, children, or objects had gone missing. Unfortunately, there was a dearth of missing husbands and children during the time we ran our business. The high point of our PI careers was when we located and returned a missing stapler.

After graduating from high school I pursued my interest in making money to Berkeley, with an idea of some day going into business, perhaps, but when I learned of the venal techniques and methods through which corporations took advantage of people, I developed such a bad taste for corporate America that I decided to become a school teacher.

However, Mom began turning my head with the toy store idea, and urged me on with a good question, “Who wouldn’t want to open a toy store?” She had a perfect response when I reminded her of the odious way in which many businesses in America are run. “Just do it your way,” she said. “Figure out what you do not like about how businesses are run and then avoid those practices when you open yours.”

Mom had an ulterior motive; she and her partner were running their Sweet Potatoes kids’ clothing business at 1222 Solano Avenue in Albany. Their dream was to make it a destination for families, so they rented the other spaces to a kid’s yoga studio, and a creative movements for toddlers business. They had one small unoccupied fourth space in which they thought a toy store would be a perfect fit. Obviously, an ideal solution, from their point of view, would be to have me move a little toy business into Mom’s building. She finally won me over with a clincher, “I’ll help you start,” she said.

Getting Down to Business
By October I was researching toy stores for product ideas and merchandizing techniques. Dad had sold his business to another toy manufacturing company and I attended a display of products the new company sponsored at a San Francisco showroom/gift center. I introduced myself to the manager, told him that I was Andre Sala’s daughter, that I wanted to begin selling my own products, and that my order with their company would be the first one placed by my new business.

Moving into the space was like coming home. Albany is my hometown and I have good memories of shopping in the various stores along Solano Avenue. We opened for business on November 16. We had only a small amount of investment capital, so were forced to carefully allocate every penny. Preparation for Opening Day had been tremendous; I worked so hard to have everything in place for a grand opening that would be grand indeed. I didn’t get much sleep. Then when the doors opened I had a shocking realization that the real work was just starting. It was a rude awakening!

The first couple years were tough. We barely squeezed by and probably never would have survived except that I was young and had learned during my college years how to live on almost nothing. The pace eventually became too difficult, however, and I was considering shutting the business down when a couple came into the store. They obviously appreciated the Five Little Monkey’s style and seemed impressed with our novelty section that

had a number of toys with pop culture references. Like many customers of both religious and secular persuasions, they were particularly enchanted by our best-selling Jesus action figure.

Only later did I learn that the man was vice president of Mandalay Bay. A week later he called, announced who he was, and said they wanted Five Little Monkeys to be part of the Mandalay Place retail plaza they were planning to open in Las Vegas. I took him up on the offer when I learned that Mandalay Bay would pay for everything. After all my troubles trying to survive, I had to keep pinching myself to see if I would awaken from a dream that seemed too good to be true. Mandalay Bay flew architects to Albany to look at my store and to work with me in making plans to convert the 1,000 square feet they were giving me in Vegas to reflect the authentic look-and-feel of Five Little Monkeys. They flew me to Las Vegas where I worked with their marketing department and staff. Five Little Monkeys became one of a number of small boutiques that were stores selected from across the nation. We would share marketing resources, HR resources, and staff members.

The onset of the recession impacted Mandalay Place just like businesses everywhere. Only four of us survived a subsequent shakeout, and we didn’t survive too long. MGM bought out Mandalay and by the end of the year they changed the business model and cut their support for my store. They invited me to run it by myself. One of the reasons I wanted to go into business for myself was so I could spend time with my family. As a single mom there was no way I could manage a store 500 miles from home.

Growth and Abundance
We had opened the Vegas store in 2004. Two years later we opened a store in Novato. It had 1,500 square feet of sales space, which was almost twice the space of the original Albany Store. In 2007 we had the opportunity to move the Albany store into a much bigger corner space in my mom’s building. At 2,500 square feet, it was nearly three times larger than the space we were moving out of. The decision to move weighed on my mind. I calculated how many dollars we would have to take in each day in order just to pay the rent. However, making the move was the best thing I ever did; sales doubled almost right away. In June 2010 we opened the Walnut Creek store and last year opened the Burlingame Store.

Life is good and the best part is the relationships I’ve been able to form with the people I’ve gotten to know. I’ve made good friends with some people who have been clients at my store since our kids were little. I am operating Five Little Monkeys just the way I think businesses should run. We return some of our profits to the schools and do such things as donating thousands of dollars for disadvantaged people, including contributing to the local Alice 97.3 FM Toys For Tots fundraiser. Another business practice is to make Five Little Monkeys a great place to work. One of my core values is to know each employee on a personal level, which was easy at the beginning when there were only a few of them. Now that there are 40 employees, such things as handwriting holiday cards for each employee requires some serious time commitment.

I come from a long line of women who have a tough time sitting down and am busy all the time. Nearly every minute of my time is consumed with some activity having to do with business or family. I avoid downtime because sitting down to watch Ellen or to read a copy of Redbook would require me to pass up some fun, fulfilling, or profitable activity. Family is a big part of my life. I am very involved in school fundraising projects, and head up of one of the biggest ones each year, plus helping coordinate others. My daughter Sydney is 11 and son Taj just turned 9. Sydney is a good softball player. I am proud of her and am manager of her traveling softball team. Taj is in the Cub Scouts and I am den leader and assistant cub master for his troop. He also plays baseball, and I coach his ball team. I am not content to remain on the sidelines, so I play soccer and softball myself on local recreational teams.

My children are both waiting until they are 14 and can begin working for Five Little Monkeys in their spare time. It has been satisfying to watch them grow up. It has also been great watching the little customers come into my store. Their hopes, dreams, and experiences are being folded into the collective memory of our community. They are making memories that someday they will recount to their grandchildren — stories about Five Little Monkeys, about who we were and what we did.

I originally opened Five Little Monkeys with the caveat that I would only do it for a year and then would close the business so I could enroll in grad school. A dozen years later grad school is still waiting because I am still running the business. And loving it!”

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