Philadelphia’s new toy library lets families save money — and the environment — while forming a community
The concept keeps toys out of landfills and in the hands of little ones who can borrow then return them.
On a misty Thursday morning, June Piccone cozied up inside the dress-up area of Rutabaga Toy Library, pulling out a wide-brimmed black hat nearly as tall as her 21-month-old self. She struggled to fit it atop her head , until her dad gently coached her into first taking off her blue baseball cap. At last securing the floppy hat into place, June erupted into giggles. She strolled over to her pal Arthur, pensively splitting apart a velcro-attached cucumber in the play kitchen, and showed off her new look.
“June loves coming here. It’s a natural kid paradise with all of the toys and the friends she gets to play with,” said Andrew Piccone, a Rutabaga Toy Library member who lives around the corner. “This is such a catalyst for meeting new people as an adult, too, when it’s hard to make friends or even meet your neighbors.”
The newly opened East Falls spot offers an inventory of 350 toys within just 1,000-square-feet of bright, rug-filled space. The toys — like play lawn mowers, colorful xylophones, activity cubes, and wooden dump trucks — are designed for kids up to 6 years old. Families must enroll in a member program to take items home. Memberships are $35 a month for one kid (and $10 a month for additional siblings), with cheaper rates available for long-term commitments. Members can borrow three toys for up to 30 days.
While Rutabaga’s soft opening was held in October, the beginning stages of the idea formed years ago, just after owner Krystal Cunillera had her second child.
“With my first kid, I was traveling wherever I could for meet-ups to help avoid feeling isolated,” said Cunillera, noting that many of her closest friends are those she met through a breast-feeding support group in West Philadelphia. “After my second kid, I started to notice a lot more parents in my actual neighborhood, but still a lack of opportunities to connect. So I started my own meet-up.”
In 2017, Cunillera created Rutabaga Circle, meeting weekly in the cafe of Vault + Vine, an East Falls floral studio. Caregivers of newborns would gather to share their experiences, sometimes celebrating a mom’s first full night of sleep, other times comforting a teary-eyed parent after a rough week.
“I wanted parents to meet their village and have people around the corner who could help them out,” said Cunillera. “I really don’t know what I would’ve done without my first Mama tribe — it made parenthood so much easier to have people to check in with.”
Cunillera quickly grew the meeting beyond a support group into a community that facilitated music classes, baby yoga workshops, and other opportunities in which parents showed interest but couldn’t find elsewhere in the neighborhood. As people started asking for more and more gatherings, Cunillera knew she needed to find a more permanent space to host what Rutabaga had become.
Meanwhile, she couldn’t stop thinking about a toy library her friend had told her about in Austin, Texas — an idea she thought was genius. One morning, she called its owner, and started chatting to see how she could create her own Philadelphia version.
“I just hate the idea of throwing perfectly fine toys into the landfill. Children, especially between ages 1 and 3, cycle through toys quickly because they’re developing really fast,” said Cunillera. “To be able to get a toy, just like a book from the library, and teach my kids to care for it, made so much more sense.”
With a business plan in place, Cunillera launched the library, keeping the same Rutabaga moniker, a name derived from a character in the kids’ show Tumble Leaf.
“Our motto from the beginning was about growing our roots and growing our community, and rutabaga is a root vegetable — but, really, I just couldn’t get away from how fun it is to say the name,” Cunillera said with a laugh.
Her main vision remains one focused around community. She sees the library as a place to help families not only save money on toys and clear clutter from their homes, but also a place to socialize. Members can swing by any time, remove their shoes, and settle in to play. Nonmembers can drop in for $8 a day.
On Thursdays, Cunillera continues to host the original Rutabaga Circle meet-up for new parents, which is free, whether a member or not. Yoga classes, clothing swaps, and other social gatherings scatter the calendar, too. Cunillera expects to expand programming in the future, with social events like BYOFood Fridays and learning events like watercolor workshops. Saturday afternoons and Sundays, families can rent out Rutabaga for birthday parties and other events.
“I’m particularly drawn to the eco-friendly mission,” said Julia Owens, 32, mother of 15-month-old Arthur. “The library has a lot of wooden toys versus super plasticky ones, and also items like balance bikes, which cost upward of $100 at the store but your kid might outgrow in a year.”
Owens plans to use the library to both borrow and test out different toys. Before gifting Arthur a set of bongo drums for his birthday, she’ll take one home from Rutabaga to gauge his interest across 30 days.
Roughly 70% of what currently fills the library was pre-owned, a stat Cunillera takes pride in. Toys were primarily gathered from her own collection and those of her friends. Others were purchased from a local Montessori preschool and area consignment stores. When sourcing, Cunillera looks for durable toys that facilitate open-ended play to foster creativity and development. She doesn’t buy plastic toys, but all kinds of donated toys are accepted as long as they’re in working condition.
“Children are a product of our society right now — everything is viewed as disposable,” she said. “My goal is to start getting kids to think from a young age about the before and after of an item.”
As for her long-term goal, Cunillera hopes one day to make the toy component of the library free, supplemented by income from rentals, classes, workshops, and after-school programs.
Located at 3452 Conrad St., Rutabaga is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit rutabagatoylibrary.com.