After celebrating 69 years of quality selection and service for toys and bikes in 2018, John Willis has sold his family’s business, Ray Willis Toys and Bikes, to Joshua Mason. While it could be said that the store is leaving the Willis family, it might be more accurate to say that the Masons are simply joining the Willis family. Both men were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to speak with us about the history of the company, the transition of ownership, and their plans for the future.
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John’s father, Ray Willis, first opened the business in 1949, starting around the corner with just a small shelf in John’s grandfather’s store, Reale’s Grocery. Finding success with small toys and electric train sets, Ray decided to expand and began turning parts of his home into a toy store, where the business still stands today. He began selling bikes in 1953, with improvements and renovations being made regularly throughout the years.
John eventually bought the business from him and has kept it running smoothly since, despite challenges and a changing landscape of toy trends. “We’ve always had competition,” John shared. “Everybody sold toys and bicycles back in the day – Jack and Harry’s, Western Auto, JC Penney’s – but the big thing is making sure that you are carrying quality items and providing quality service, even to other people’s products.”
John also spoke to the importance of keeping up with trends in toys, games, and entertainment, and the benefits of buying from an actual brick-and-mortar local store in the age of Amazon and expedited shipping. “The internet is the biggest competitor for all small businesses, but if you gear the store correctly, the internet isn’t as much of a problem throughout the year as they are from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because this isn’t just a place to get Christmas presents. It’s a place to get gifts for birthdays, or rewards for doing well at the dentist or getting a good report card. If you cater to that type of purchase then it’s more of an ‘I need this now’ situation, not in 2-3 days.”
Building and maintaining a strong customer base, both during the summer and year round, is vital to the store’s continuing success. Some customers returning for three or four generations. “They’re very loyal, and they’ve helped support us for these past 69 years,” John explained. “We couldn’t have done it without them. We’re very fortunate in this area to have a summer trade, all the way from Wakefield to Old Saybrook, and customers who keep returning. In the summer time, they’re invaluable. Half of our business happens in the summer time, and we work hard to make sure that they have time to enjoy their vacation – they want to play, they want their bikes, so just bring it in and we’ll take care of it and get you back on the road. That kind of service is very important to people in the summer and also to local people who are going on vacation. Maybe they decide they want to take their bikes with them. Call us and we’ll do what we can to make sure you’re ready to go.”
John also sang the praises of his employees, past and present, who worked tirelessly to ensure the fast and reliable service customers have come to expect. “We’ve had a tremendous number of extremely loyal and hardworking employees who have really kept us going,” he shared. “We would not be who we are today without their hard work. They have been truly phenomenal. Every single one – invaluable. Incredible.”
John plans to spend some time in Florida, but he will return to help Josh and his family out during the first summer season and introduce them to many customers as they return. “I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m gonna travel my world, but there are places we want to go, things we want to do that we’re looking forward to,” he shared. “I haven’t ridden a bicycle just for fun in years, and I’d like to do that again.”
Both John and Josh believe the transition will be smooth, thanks to their shared core beliefs in customer service, paired with their love for and knowledge of the community. “If you had asked me a couple of years ago to make a list of the criteria that I would want in a person taking over the business for me, and carrying on this tradition, this guy would surpass it,” John said. “His whole family, really. They’re a cycling family, a business family, a local family, and downright nice people. They’re a dream come true for me. Gift certificates will be honored, service on bicycles will continue, the customers will be taken care of. That’s what I wanted to hear, and I would’ve never dreamt that this could be happening, that all my fears could be gone. Josh’s father has run the ServiceMaster by Mason in Westerly and they’ve been serving the community for over thirty years, and serving them very well, so he’s grown up in the service business. In fact, his family has been good customers of ours since they moved to Westerly. When I look at Josh and his family, I see a gleam in their eye, I can see the excitement, I can see it building, and that’s what I want. I see myself 35 years ago, when I bought the business from my father and the excitement was just overwhelming.”
“He was getting me emotional,” Josh laughed, as I turned my attention to his part of the story and his plans for the future of the store. “This is like a Hallmark movie.”
Josh’s parents first moved to Westerly in the early 1990s when Josh was around four years old. “I came here to get my first bike,” Josh shared. “And then I started a paper route, so I always had my bike tuned up from here.” Following graduation from Westerly High School, Josh attended college to study athletic training, but left early and went abroad, first to Brazil to work at a home for street kids, and then as a surf guide in Costa Rica, where he eventually met his wife. He began working as ServiceMaster while his wife taught middle school science at Wheeler, and the two decided to move back to the area to be closer to both family and work once they discovered that their son Remy was on the way and soon after started a pedicab business.
Named after his son, the benefits of Remy’s Cycle are many fold, as it is an affordable and fun convenience for visitors, a service for downtown businesses, and a way for Josh to advertise and integrate the bike shop. “I live up the road from Gray Sail, so I know how much of a problem parking on Canal can be,” he explained. “We bought the bike and started cruising around last spring and business really picked up on Friday and Saturday nights this summer.” The downtown renaissance that has brought art, entertainment, dining, and night life to the area has also drawn new tourists and visitors from across the globe. “It was a blast to meet people from all over the world, from Ireland, Poland – they can go anywhere they want, and they come to Westerly.”
Taking up the reigns for Ray Willis was a family discussion, sparked by Josh’s father stopping by the store for a tube for his bike and chatting with John about his retirement and plans for the future. “He asked my dad if he had any sons who might be interested, and we all thought it would be really cool to be a part of this long legacy, and a great way to be more connected to the community. We began the process two years ago and now we finally have all our ducks in a row so here we are today.”
“The beauty of him is his age. He’s coming in with a whole new line of sight,” John interjected. “He mountain bikes and has participated in a few races, so he can bring this knowledge and experience to customers. He’s played with different toys, and his nieces and nephews and now his son enjoy different toys, so he has a whole new attitude about expanding and enhancing what we carry. He’s also a soccer coach at the middle school here, so he knows a lot of the local kids already. Kids are kids, in every generation, but you have to be in contact with them to know what it is that they want, and he and his wife are very much in contact.”
“I’m a people person,” Josh said as we began to wrap up. “One of the key reasons I was interested in this business is that it’s a catalyst for people to interact with each other – games, toys, and puzzles are a way for friends, or a husband and wife, siblings, grandparents, whole families interact with one another. Bikes get you into the outdoors, into the real world, out with other people.”
Toys and bikes aren’t just material things, they’re a pathway to shared experiences; they are made of plastic, wood, or metal, but also the time spent in play and the destinations, real or imagined, that they can help bring you to. As I was tucking away my laptop, a father came in, hoping to find bikes for his twin three-year-old daughters. Promising business as usual, only better, it’s safe to say that the future is bright for Ray Willis.