Some years ago, in late December, a little boy of four confided in his mother that he knew where his Christmas present had come from. “It came from Santa Claus,” he said. His mother was amused. “And how do you know that?” she asked. The boy answered, “I saw it in his shop.”
Richard Stack laughs-a great, hiccupping sound-as he tells the story in his mild English accent. Though the toy store owner’s physique-his windswept white hair, his lively laugh, his Clausian girth-certainly invites the comparison, he doesn’t encourage it. He’s never worn a red suit for the holidays, and he flatly refuses to carry seasonal toys in his store because, in his own, delicate words, “You go to the drugstore for that shit.”
The Toystore on Audubon, known to regular customers as “Richard’s Place,” is crammed floor-to-ceiling with neon plush and plastics. Stack’s desk, which also serves as a checkout counter, is shoved into a corner and buried under an old PC and tumbling piles of paper. The disheveled man with an uncensored sense of humor seems incongruous among the frilly dolls and brightly colored building blocks. He’s constantly knocking things over as he lumbers through the aisles, but he remains nonplussed. “Do you know how often that happens in this store?” he asks no one in particular, as a stand of hand puppets crashes to the floor behind him. The jungle of toys gives the place a certain flair, but Stack insists that the chaos is not by design. “I am, I confess, no businessman at all,” he says. “Business is a pain in the ass.”
A mere ten years ago, Stack was anything but a businessman. He had just quit his job as a literature professor at SUNY, where he had been one of the college’s founding members. “I had a sense that if I stayed there, I was going to go on doing exactly the same thing for the rest of my life, and I said, ‘Oh, fuck that.'” The bibliophile moved his family to New Haven because he loved the Elm City’s library, and, for a time, he kept himself busy with scholarly work. When he became a grandfather, he suddenly realized that the city so well-equipped for the ivory tower was lacking in plastic castles. New Haven didn’t have a single toy store. “The idea that the only place people could go to get toys was to the mass market was really repulsive,” Stack says. “I found myself running screaming out of those places. So I thought, ‘What the fuck?'” And Toystore on Audubon was born.
We’re outside smoking cigarettes as he remembers all the people he has been. In his going-on-seventy years, he has leapt between homes and identities as effortlessly as his favorite toy, the flexible wooden Voil� doll, might be made to leap across imaginary stages. A toy store owner and a teacher were the last two things he expected to be. “I thought I would be a chemist,” he muses. “Or an actor.”
Born in Switzerland and raised in Montreal, Stack went to college in London to study chemistry at the University. He worked part-time in a research lab, a job for which he remains grateful. “As a kid, I thought I was a chemist. When I went to work for this big corporation called Glaxo,” he snorts, “I rapidly discovered that I was not a chemist.”
It was also in London that he discovered the theater, his next great love. “I had the mad idea that any cultivated person would’ve seen everything that’s on, so I saw everything that was on. Of course, my chemistry studies suffered somewhat.” The theater followed him to Trinity College, where he studied literature and directed the first productions of Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet seen in Dublin. Remembering the city in the late fifties, he laughs. “It was a piss.”
Dublin was where he fell in love two more times: with James Joyce’s Ulysses and with his first wife. Though he’s no longer married to the latter, he still maintains that Joyce is the greatest writer and most remarkable person to ever live. At the time, Ulysses was banned, and therefore coveted. “Ah, it’s a wicked, horrible, dirty book,” Stack says with a relish you wouldn’t expect of a shop-owner whose main clientele is under the age of ten. “You bought it under the table, or in Paris, or whatever. It was a blast.”
As for the wife, he flew to New York to marry her at the age of 22, and when he got off the plane he had the uncanny feeling that he was coming home. “I had been abroad all my life,” he says, “and in New York, everyone is abroad.” They moved to Stanford for graduate school, but eventually made their way back to the City, where he married his second wife. “She was a student of mine,” he says. “I mean, no hanky-panky, but when she heard my marriage had disintegrated in the ’70s-as most marriages did-she looked me up, and we got along.”
These days, Stack still dabbles in scholarly work. He runs an on-line course on Ulysses, and he did a recording of the novel for a local TV station. He will catechize about the book to anyone who’s interested. “It’s the only book you can study down to the last detail, and it repays; it’s so rich, so difficult, so completely responsible-and funny, terribly funny!” he says. He acts out a scene for me (it’s a hot day; Bloom is reaching covertly for a card stuck in his hat; “Calypso”) and his laugh is an uproarious staccato that echoes in the quiet street. “Ulysses,” he says, “is a wonderful toy.”
He also helps international students with their dissertations; the papers on his desk inside the store belong to Wang Ao, a Chinese graduate student writing about late Tang poetry. We talk about China for a bit. Though I hold the advantage of having been born there, he has a knowledge of Chinese history much vaster than my own. He reads history voraciously, even more so than fiction or poetry. He has created a program to address female illiteracy in developing countries, which he regards as a wildly underappreciated issue at the heart of the AIDS crisis, underdevelopment, and unrest in the Muslim world. He asks me my major; when I tell him it’s Economics and Math, he quizzes me about the GDP, the national debt, and the growth of Yale’s endowment.
I remark that he seems to know a lot about everything, Stacks thinks for a while. “Yes, I suppose I do,” he agrees. Ironically, it’s children and business that he claims to know the least about. In fact, he seems to run Toystore on Audobon based on literary principles. When the phone rings and a woman asks whether the store carries porcelain dolls, he recommends what he says is a figure out of Henry James: a doll who looks like “a rather hopeful young lady just setting out for Paris looking for a husband, with her wardrobe and a little music box to keep her amused on her journey.”
The intellectual toy store owner could easily play the part of a Yale professor, but he’s suspicious of his New Haven neighbor. A crusader for the authentic and the unconventional, he finds the collegiate setting unnaturally restrictive. “The competitiveness of the undergraduate world has resulted in an unfortunate situation where all the smarty-pants are in one place,” says this man, whose willingness to change course, to live without a plan, might seem foreign to many Yale students. “I think that’s not healthy.” Stacks is also critical of what he calls “a particular kind of smarty-pants… people who are very good at getting good grades and SATs and that sort of thing.”
To him, these students, consumers in an emerging mass market of education, represent a sort of commodification of learning. I can’t imagine anything could be more repugnant to Stack, who reminds me that his store is not about learning to be a consumer but is about learning to play. In this statement, the pieces of this human puzzle come together. Finally, Stack stacks up. Like Ulysses’ protagonist Stephen Dedalus, Stack is, in the words of his favorite author, “not born to be a teacher.” Like the character from whom he continues to learn, he is “a learner rather.”