Postcard from Delhi: Survival is no child's play for 'India's oldest toy shop'

Ram Chander & Sons was known as the place to go for quality imports before the economy opened up and e-commerce surged

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In a shop tucked away in the heart of Indian capital, Amit Sundra listens patiently to customers, helping them to find the right toys to buy. In between sales, he politely entertains visitors who drop in just to take photos.

Placed neatly in the cramped space are German-made models of Rolls-Royce cars, planes, cartoon and comic-book characters such as Peppa Pig and the Avengers, and Barbie dolls. Prices range from 100 rupees to 65,000 rupees ($1.15 to $17.70).

At first sight, the Ram Chander & Sons toy shop in a colonial-era white building in Connaught Place, the commercial hub of New Delhi, seems ordinary in comparison with the fancy delicatessen and imposing cineplex nearby. It is the sign outside that catches the eye: "India’s oldest toy store."

“People come from all over world. They come to buy a souvenir or just to get a picture of them clicked with my father, who is a great storyteller and one of the oldest in the toy business,” Mr Sundra tells The National.

He says he is in the process of seeking official recognition as the oldest toy shop in the country.

'Oldest surviving toy shop'

Mr Sundra, 53, is a fifth-generation owner of the family-run shop that opened in 1932. He took the reins from his 86-year-old father, Satish, in 1989.

The family’s journey in the toy business began in 1890, when Mr Sundra’s great-grandfather Seth Chunnilal opened a shop in the cantonment in Ambala, a bustling city in the British-era province of Punjab, which is now in neighbouring Haryana state.

The business later moved to the town of Kasauli, about 60km to the north in the foothills of the Himalayas. The nearby town of Shimla was at the time a popular summer resort for the British ruling elite.

The shop in the Indian capital was opened by Raj Sundra, Amit’s grandfather, in the upmarket Lutyens' Delhi area that has remained the country's seat of power, even after independence from British rule in 1947.

The shop in Kasauli was closed after independence, as its mainly British clientele dropped sharply.

Mr Sundra says his shop sold toys imported from Germany, Japan and England and was popular with British officials and, after independence, senior government officials and civil servants.

“Before independence, my grandfather used to close this shop in the summers and open the Kasauli shop as all the British would go up in the hills. Post-independence, that practice stopped. Prime ministers, politicians – they all visited us to buy toys.”

Slow decline of family-run shops

For decades after independence, Ram Chander & Sons enjoyed the reputation of being the place to go for anyone in India looking to buy quality imported toys.

But its fortunes began to turn after India began opening up its economy in the 1990s, leading to an influx of Chinese-made toys at much lower prices. Before this, Indian buyers had the option of buying high-quality imports from the West and Japan, and toys made domestically.

“Toys made in Japan, England and Germany were upmarket. And then there were toys by domestic manufacturers who made wooden or tin toys and all kinds of board, puzzle games that weren’t of high quality,” Mr Sundra says.

"Chinese toys invaded the market, but with the passage of time, bad products also came."

In 2021, the Indian government banned imports of toys that did not meet its quality standards and two years later increased the import duty on toys to 70 per cent, from 20 per cent. The moves were aimed at boosting domestic manufacturers, but in turn hurt businesses selling imported goods.

Imports of toys declined by 52 per cent in 2023, government data shows.

“We can still import but there is a huge duty and permissions required. There is a great vacuum right now. No stuff is coming in and one is reliant on local manufacturers who try, but no great innovation has taken place. Most copy each other,” Mr Sundra says.

His business has also had to contend with the opening of more toy shops, including branches of the British chain Hamleys that is now owned by Indian conglomerate Reliance Group, and the arrival of e-commerce giants.

“The footfall at the shop has reduced by 30 to 50 per cent. There are also lots of stores opening up in local markets.”

The rise in online sales has also affected business. “Often, they sell products at a price which is lower than even our buying price,” he adds.

Mr Sundra says is he determined to keep the shop going but fears he will be the last generation in his family to run the business.

“Traditionally, all the mom-and-pop shops are dying out. Stores are shutting left, right and centre. We are here. For us, it is a legacy, it is about honour and we just keep trying to survive," he says.

“I don’t think the shop will continue after me because of the whole process of interacting with people – all kinds and quality of people – and general pressure to survive that children do not fancy very much."

Updated: May 17, 2024, 6:00 PM