Channel Craft looks like Santa’s Workshop all year round.
The 34-year-old Charleroi company makes and distributes authentic USA-made toys, games and puzzles, and as Christmas approaches, the merry gang of Channel Craft employees are hard at work to fill the boxes. orders from customers across the country.
There’s even a section in the warehouse dedicated to “misfit toys” – imperfect but usable toys – which the company donates to Toys for Tots and Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child.
“Everyone is jazzed up. There is no downtime, ”says Dean Helfer Jr., the affable president and founder of Channel Craft. “There are people and more and more people. “
The vintage toys and games produced by Channel Craft are those that children’s parents and grandparents may have unwrapped under their Christmas trees: winks, marbles, collecting sticks, dominoes, jacks, jump ropes, balsa planes, puzzles and yo-yos. .
“There is an appeal for nostalgic toys. Most of the people who buy them are like me – they don’t want their children or grandchildren growing up without games and toys that give them a truly interactive experience, ”says Helfer.
Helfer, now 56, started Channel Craft in 1983 after purchasing a 1972 Ford van and mounting his grandfather’s carpentry shop tools in the back. He traveled to craft shows and festivals, where he sold his handicrafts.
Among the products he made were boomerangs, which he began making by hand and selling while a student at the University of West Virginia.
“I wanted to teach everyone how to throw a boomerang,” says Helfer, who founded the university’s Boomerang Club, which performed at halftime football matches.
By the time he graduated from college, Helfer was selling about $ 113,000 worth of boomerangs a year. He opened a store in Morgantown before moving to Ellsworth, and in 1991 he purchased a warehouse on the bank of the Monongahela River that had originally been built as the US Army Corps of Engineers shipyard during the construction of lock n ° 4.
Channel Craft now manufactures over 100 authentic toys made in the United States and also distributes toys made by American artisans. The toys are distributed at outlets such as Cracker Barrel Old Country, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, museums, national parks, and mom-and-pop stores nationwide.
Most items are available for around $ 10 or less.
Channel Craft now has 40 employees, whom Helfer describes as a “bright and dedicated team with a great work ethic”.
Among them is Katherine Secleter, a graphic designer and social media manager who was hired five years ago after graduating from the University of California, Pennsylvania.
“It’s a very positive atmosphere here. I think everyone loves what they do because they make something for a kid to play with, ”Secleter says. “I think we give the gift of imagination and the gift of pleasure.”
For Dennis Miller, a retired private investigator who sports a Santa-like white beard, working at Channel Craft is “the perfect retirement job.”
“It’s a great place to be. Everyone here is really nice, and Dean gives us lunch every other Friday, ”Miller says with a laugh.
Helfer is proud that his business continues to thrive in a market where at least 90% of toys sold in the United States are produced in foreign countries.
Channel Craft remains the world’s largest boomerang maker, producing 80,000 throwing sticks each year.
“We are able to be competitive by producing quality toys made in the USA,” says Helfer. “In addition to the 40 of us, there are hundreds of other artisans across America who rely on Channel Craft to distribute their products in our department stores and specialty stores.
On a recent October morning, inside the three buildings that make up the Channel Craft campus, employees were working to fill Christmas orders for the company’s 10,000 or so customers: cutting and assembling wooden toys, placing game pieces and instructions inside the games, stamping logos on whistles – a real workshop of Santa Claus.
“They rely on us to fill their orders, and we can’t let them down,” says Helfer.
Helfer says he’s committed to ensuring the business continues to grow and provide unique retro products. “Oh sure, I imagined that, but it didn’t just come to this point,” he says. “Every day is a continuous progression. We make decisions, and some work and some don’t. We have the problems that all businesses face, but we keep trying.