When Gaetana (Paolini) Schueckler, '87, met David Schueckler, '86 (pictured), in her business communication course at Buffalo State, she saw an intelligent, handsome young man who whizzed through assignments and frequently spoke up in class.
Fast-forward almost three decades, and that fellow business student is now her husband of 23 years and partner in The Treehouse, an independent toy store that opened in 1996 in the Elmwood Village.
After a career in production management and market research for companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gaetana clearly views ownership of The Treehouse as a labor of love.
"If you told me 18 years ago that I’d be selling toys for a living, I would have laughed," said Gaetana from a tiny office inside the 1,200-square-foot store that is filled to the brim with wooden building blocks, arts and crafts sets, plush toys, and challenging games for all ages. On a weekday morning close to Christmas, the store was bustling with tiny, squealing customers and their taller, quieter companions. They have a complement of five employees who rotate shifts working the register and waiting on customers.
"We put a lot of hours into the business, but we also remember to keep it fun for ourselves and our employees," Gaetana said. "We laugh a lot."
While she handles the purchasing and human resources part of the business, David focuses on the technical and bookkeeping aspects.
David, who graduated from Buffalo State with a dual degree in mathematics and business, worked in banking, earned a master of business administration, and ran his own market research company prior to opening the toy store.
As whimsical as the store is, The Treehouse was opened on anything but a whim. Using their market research skills, Gaetana and David conducted a thorough analysis of the Elmwood Village, specifically looking at what kind of business was lacking.
"We are both calculated risktakers," Gaetana said. "Every bit of profit we made at the beginning we put back in buying new inventory and growing."
Originally, they considered opening a cybercafé, long before coffee sellers occupied every other corner. With David’s extensive computer knowledge, they thought it would be a natural. But they soon realized a cybercafé would be too quiet an atmosphere to work in every day. They wanted one with more energy and life.
What could be more energetic than a store selling kickboards, tin drums, and knights that most certainly come to life in the right hands?
"We could see ourselves selling toys, and we wanted to do something we felt passionate about," Gaetana said.
Since they opened, the specialty toys store has weathered competition from big-box retailers and the economic crisis that derailed some other businesses.
As an independent store, The Treehouse offers the kind of personalized customer service that far exceeds what can be found at stores that sell toys alongside groceries and tools. And they have a core group of customers who frequent the store throughout the year. They are starting to see a second generation of shoppers, young parents who shopped at The Treehouse in their youth.
One key lesson they recognized early on that has helped steady the course: Control is an illusion.
"You can't control the environment. You can’t control regulatory changes," David said. "You just have to be prepared for anything."
Additionally, David said they follow the maxim: "You can’t just work in the business; you must work on the business."
This means engaging with the community in new ways. Last summer, they introduced Games at Canalside, a program in conjunction with Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. The Treehouse provided more than 40 lawn and tabletop games that visitors could use at no charge down at the Canalside lawn areas from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Their plan is to continue this program this summer.
"It's neat watching our games in action," Gaetana said.
Additionally, both Gaetana and David mingle with other toy sellers in a national toy convention each summer to learn about hot trends and check out new items.
"If I get excited about a new toy or game," Gaetana said, "then there is a good chance our customers will enjoy it, too. If it's not something I can recommend enthusiastically, we’ll pass."