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Toy story

Andrew Stone discovers how toyshop owner Gary Grant is reminding his customers of the original Christmas story

Christmas is not just a bank holiday

EVERYONE knows that the toys children excitedly unwrap on Christmas Day come from Santa’s magic workshop. However, sometimes Santa – and mums and dads – need a little help from high street toyshops.

If they visit one of The Entertainer’s 160 stores during December, those parents are as likely to encounter Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as they are to meet a man with a white beard dressed all in red. That’s because the toyshops’ front windows are displaying a traditional nativity scene, and customers under the age of 12 will be given a free copy of War Cry’s sister paper Kids Alive!, the UK’s only weekly children’s comic with Christian content.

‘My primary goal is to play my small part in explaining why we celebrate Christmas,’ explains Gary Grant, the founder of The Entertainer. ‘Christmas is not just a bank holiday, it’s a true story about the birth of Jesus.

‘I’m disappointed that much of the world behaves as though it can’t include the true meaning of Christmas. Many shopping centres and schools don’t have nativity scenes. But I’ve overheard grandparents outside our shops explaining what our nativity scene is about.’

The business decisions of The Entertainer don’t always seem to make commercial sense. Each year, 10 per cent of its profits go to charity. In 2008, when rival store Woolworths (which had 14 per cent of the toy trade) was forced to close, Gary invited his senior staff to pray with him for Woolworths staff, for their own business to weather the recession and for the government as it sought to steer the economy away from crisis. Gary is not afraid to put his faith at the forefront of all he does.

Gary was born in Wembley, north London. His parents divorced when he was just three years old. It wasn’t easy for his mum to make ends meet, and Gary earned his pocket money sweeping neighbours’ leaves, clearing snow and washing cars. He worked in a sweet shop, a bike shop and on a milk float before he left school with one O level in maths. ‘That has served me really well,’ he says. ‘I work out discounts while other people are still playing with their calculators.’

The bike shop gave him a job when he left school. It was the mid- 1970s and there was a skateboard boom. When the market slumped, Gary bought up the surplus stock and started his own business on the side, selling skateboard parts. The conflict of interests got him the sack. He tried to find a bike shop to start his own business, but an estate agent friend suggested a toyshop. Four months later, in May 1981, Gary and his wife Catherine opened their first shop.

Ten years later, with the business doing well, Gary had an experience that changed his life. Catherine bought him a ticket for a men’s breakfast at her church.

‘I went along and heard a preacher talk about the relationship he had with Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit can influence our lives, guide us and turn things around. I’d done RE at school, but the whole religious thing was very remote. It wasn’t a living thing, just something you learnt. No one had ever told me that Jesus overwhelmingly, unconditionally loved me.’

Gary decided to go back to church to find the preacher. As he sat in a Sunday service, he found himself crying. He didn’t know why.

‘An hour later,’ he recalls, ‘I was still crying, but something had dramatically changed. I walked out of church that night realising that God really, really loved me. He didn’t like everything I did, but he loved me. God doesn’t say, “If you change what you do, I’ll love you.” He says, “I love you unconditionally.”’

The experience prompted Gary to rethink everything he did. He had three shops at the time and Sunday trading was still illegal. When the law changed, Gary prayed about what to do and decided not to open his shops on Sundays.

‘I value families. Did I really want all my staff working on a Sunday when it’s often the only day of the week to spend time together and have a family meal?’

Even in the recession of 2008 and 2009 when the bank manager said, ‘You’re going to have to give up this Sunday stuff’, Gary stuck to his principles.

Since then, retail park landlords have told him he does more trade in six days than his competitors do in seven.

‘My Christian faith is not a rule book forced upon me. It’s all about choices,’ he says. ‘What I’ve found has been life-changing. Faith is a living, daily thing. Considering the question “What does God want me to do?” is as important from Monday to Friday as on a Sunday.’

Gary hopes that by giving away the copies of Kids Alive! and the Christian magazine Christmas Hope, he will be helping adults and children to discover the Christian meaning of Christmas and the way God can make a positive impact on their lives.

The War Cry

The War Cry

From arts and culture to health and sport, the War Cry is packed with features, comment, reviews, mouth-watering recipes, puzzles and much more...

Salvationist

Salvationist

Salvationist is a weekly 24-page magazine for members and friends of The Salvation Army - with news, features, Bible studies and much more

Kids Alive!

Kids Alive!

Kids Alive! The UK's only Christian weekly comic - filled with jokes, competitions, Bible-based cartoons and much more