LIFESTYLE

Free toy store in Nashville gives families the dignity of choice while shopping for holiday gifts

Dec 7, 2023, 9:02 PM

Molly Armbrecht, center, arranges toys at The Toy Store, a free-referral based toy store Thursday, ...

Molly Armbrecht, center, arranges toys at The Toy Store, a free-referral based toy store Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The facility is co-founded by Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams-Paisley. The couple also started The Store, a free-referral based grocery store they opened in partnership with Belmont University in March 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When country music star Brad Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, helped create a free grocery store in Nashville, Tennessee, their goal was to give families in need the ability to choose their own food in a place that felt like a normal store.

This year, The Store is offering that same dignity of choice to parents looking for gifts for the holiday season. During a two-day event starting Friday, selected families will shop at a free toy store, stocked with brand new toys, video games, stuffed animals, scooters, clothes, makeup and musical instruments.

“The emotional aspect of being able to give your child something your child wanted versus just something to sort of get you through the holidays, that’s such a load off the minds of somebody who maybe didn’t think they were going to be able to do that,” Paisley said.

The Paisleys got a sneak peak on Thursday before the free toy store opened, marveling over the stacks of gifts, wrapping station, Christmas trees and holiday decorations. Volunteers and staff from Belmont University and The Store spent hours unpacking and organizing all the donated toys into sections and decorating while listening to Christmas music.

The celebrity couple brought the idea of a free grocery store to Nashville after seeing the concept years ago at the Unity Shoppe in Santa Barbara, California. When The Store launched in early 2020, it was just weeks after a tornado hit the city and before the global pandemic made food access an immediate problem.

The Store and its staff adapted, turning into a food delivery service for older people and delivering a million meals in the first year of operation. In addition to the free groceries, Belmont University, where Paisley graduated, now offers additional services to low-income families, including financial literacy events, music therapy and medicine management.

“People come on hard times and we want this to be a safe, welcoming place for everybody, whether you’re volunteering or whether you’re needing the services,” Williams-Paisley said. “It’s just a community and we’re all in it together.”

The Store received about 2,000 donated items, about half of which came from the Nashville area, and raised $20,000. Parents will be able to drop off their kids at a church next door, where they can play and drink hot chocolate while the adults shop and get gifts wrapped.

There are plans for the toy store to become a recurring event, but Williams-Paisley noted The Store would need year-round donations to keep people fed.

“We’re still not serving everybody that we want to serve. Food insecurity is on the rise. The USDA just released its report saying 17 million households in this country are facing food insecurity and that’s on the rise from 2021,” Williams-Paisley said. “There’s so much we want to do. And really like the toy store has shown us that we can keep going and we can keep expanding and growing.”

Paisley admits this is his favorite season of the year, even suggesting he might show up at the toy store in a Santa costume.

“I live for this time of year,” Paisley said. “Ever since we’ve had children and possibly even before, I kind of go all out.”

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Free toy store in Nashville gives families the dignity of choice while shopping for holiday gifts