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Toy stores pushed into role as caretaker

Trish Moon had settled in for the evening at home when the phone rang.

It was a clerk at the Durham toy store she manages. Two little boys were still in the store at closing time, and their parents were nowhere in sight.

Moon wishes that night had been an aberration. But she and other toy store workers say it is commonplace for parents, grandparents, even babysitters to drop children off at toy stores and leave them, sometimes for hours.

"It amazes us on a daily basis," Moon says.

It is not that children shoppers are unwelcome, explains Fred Chapman, owner of the store Moon manages.

"To some extent, we don't mind watching a child for brief periods of time. We encourage people to take advantage of us in a small way. To go next door to get a Coke _ that's all right," Chapman said.

"But somebody walking in you've never seen before, they drop off a kid and don't come back for two hours. Meanwhile, the child needs to go to the bathroom and you have that liability.

"People are using us for a day care service," Chapman says. "We have some concern about individuals taking advantage of us."

His wife, Donna Chapman, checked recently with a few friends she knows through the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association. She found the problem is not unique to her store or to North Carolina.

But not all toy stores frown on unaccompanied children, provided they are old enough to take care of themselves.

David Hesel said when he notices a parent leaving a child at his Concord, Mass., toy store, he checks to see how old the child is.

"We're just concerned about an infant or a toddler being left," said Hesel, who is president of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Association.

"If you leave a child in my store, you know the child is going to be safe here," he said. "The question is the mentality of a parent doing that, and that's what I don't quite understand."

It is no longer a shock to Moon, the Durham toy store manager.

She remembers a little girl, about 7 years old, whose babysitter left her in the toy store with strict instructions to stay there.

"She was here for a long time," Moon said. "It was real sad. The little girl said "I can help you clean, put something together. I'll help you. I don't want to be in your way.' "

Moon wasn't prepared for the babysitter when she returned.

"I was expecting to see a teen-ager. But a grandmotherly-type person comes through the door and yells at her, "Come on, we're ready to go,' " she says.

"When I went up to say something to her, she says, "Oh, don't worry, I'll be back to buy something another time' and left."

Dr. Oliver Johnson of the North Carolina Child Advocacy Group says the practice of leaving children alone in toy stores is part of a larger and, to him, unsettling trend.

"It's symptomatic of what I believe is pervasive in society now, that we do not value our children. People seem to just accept it," Johnson said.

"As a society, we don't value what should be a valuable possession, a precious resource."