The Brain Shoppe: more than mind games

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The Ithaca Commons is no stranger to unique shops, but none stick out quite as much as The Brain Shoppe, owned and operated by Christopher DelCollo. The storefront is full of perpetual motion machines, and if that doesn’t draw your eye, there’s also a large brain logo next to the store’s name. This is only a hint of what lies inside.

“Every morning, I have to clean off hand and face prints in front of all those perpetual motion machines,” DelCollo said. “I really wanted to set people up for the experience to be had here in The Brain Shoppe. It is a gift store at its heart, but there’s also a lot of fun to be had here for kids of all ages.”

Indeed, DelCollo has plenty of items designed to challenge the mind in a way anyone can enjoy. Patrons are encouraged to try out the puzzles, many of which are on display out of the box for that exact purpose.

DelCollo has been running his web development company, Ancient Wisdom Productions, for about 15 years, and he said that experience had an interesting side effect.

“Over the course of 15 years, … people have brought down and gifted our business different brain-teaser puzzles,” DelCollo said. “And I started collecting them all together in a basket at the business that I kept for when parents would come in.”

That’s where the idea for The Brain Shoppe came in.

“Having that around our agency just got me thinking, ‘Boy, I wish there was a store that you could go to to get all of those things,’” he said. “There’s no one store that just collects a whole bunch of smart gifts all together.”

Over the past five years, that idea developed as friends and Commons business owners encouraged him to turn it into a real business.

“Brain Shoppe was an idea that was just really kicking around for many years,” he said. “The more people I would tell about it, the more encouragement I got to actually make it happen.”

With a childhood wonder of brain puzzles under his belt and entrepreneurship on his resume, DelCollo said all the pieces came together.

The store is designed to be reminiscent of a museum gift shop, DelCollo said, complete with items like polished rocks, which he calls “thinking rocks.”

“[When] I was thinking about what would the vibe of this store be and what cool interesting items I would sell in the store, I was definitely thinking about museum gift shops and that fun experience you have there of discovery,” he said.

Shop items include wind-up toys, code games, wooden puzzles, metal puzzles and more, with plenty to entertain kids and adults alike. DelCollo said he sells items that are designed to get children interested in learning.

“There are these fun, teaching moments that happen here in the store that parents can use these fun toys to educate as well as just have a good time,” he said.

Adults can find plenty of puzzles from their childhood, as DelCollo frequently takes suggestions from adult patrons for what puzzles people want to buy.

“Grown-ups are like, ‘Oh, I remember that from when I was a kid,’” DelCollo said. “There’s this moment of nostalgia for them, and that’s also really great.”
DelCollo’s favorite part about owning a store like The Brain Shoppe is seeing the excitement his puzzles bring to people that try them out.

“When people are working with these puzzles and they solve a puzzle, that feeling that you get when you’ve worked really hard on something and you solve it, to be in a store where that’s happening all day long is such a rewarding experience,” he said. “And it’s so great to be able to provide an experience where people can experience that kind of joy and elation.”

Sometimes, the store can get quite packed, and DelCollo said that’s when the best experiences can happen.

“It’s really fun and lively when there are that many people in the store at the same time,” he said. “Everybody’s sharing in that puzzling. … Everybody’s getting smarter with each other all solving puzzles around each other.”

Though the store is meant to be a fun place, DelCollo said its purpose goes beyond entertainment; he also wants to provide a way for people to strengthen their mind and, consequently, their mental health.

“Everything that’s in the store is designed to stimulate your brain in some way, in a fun way, in an educational way, but things here will really get you thinking,” he said. “Critical thinking, problem solving, are a huge part of keeping your mind fit and in shape and setting you up for mental health throughout your life.”

The Brain Shoppe opened in early July, and DelCollo said he was immediately grateful that he opened on the Commons. His spot allows him to have his web agency in the back and the shop up front, helping to cut costs for both businesses. The location also has helped him bring in all sorts of people, which he said adds to the culture of downtown.

“I get a really great mix between local shoppers and folks that are visiting Ithaca,” he said. “I really want it to be set up here, on the Commons in the heart of downtown and be able to provide an experience that really reflects well on Ithaca and our intellectual values but do it in a really fun way.”

So far, business has been good for The Brain Shoppe, but DelCollo is keeping a watchful eye on the future. Winter can bring slow months for Commons businesses, so he’s focusing on bringing in as many people as possible while it’s still warm outside so he can last through the cold weather.

“I’m really dependent on enough people coming through in the summer months to be able to support the store and to be able to pay the rent in the slower months,” he said. “I think about that pretty much every day.”

No matter the challenge, DelCollo knows it’s all part of owning a business.

“When you’re doing something that’s really your passion, the challenges, I think, feel less insurmountable and just more like an organic, natural part of the process,” he said.

His store has been a project many years in the making, and he still has plenty of ideas on how to expand and improve his inventory. Overall, DelCollo is grateful for the chance to be part of Ithaca’s downtown.

“I’m a very forward-thinking and optimistic person, so the idea of The Brain Shoppe, in a way, is a longtime dream come true,” he said.

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