Toko Imports launches contest for new owner

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Toko Imports, located in the Dewitt Mall in downtown Ithaca, is looking for a new owner in a way that would make Willy Wonka proud. Polly Wood, current owner of the percussion store that has been a mainstay in Ithaca for nearly four decades, has launched a contest for Toko, and it’s been an interesting journey.

The contest, which began Aug. 20, presents a series of questions for contestants to answer related to why they want to own Toko and what vision they have for the business. The entry fee is $108, and the winner receives all the inventory, the fixtures/furnishings and “40 years of goodwill to take and make their own,” Wood said.

That goodwill comes from a long history in Ithaca. Toko Imports was first opened in 1980 by Tom Kozlowski, for whom Wood took over in 2014, according to a recent press release. As Wood tells it, Kozlowski was a part of her life long before she took his position.

“I grew up in Ithaca,” she said. “[But] I was living on the West Coast, and every time I came home to visit family, I would stop in and visit Tom … and see what he had going on in here.”

Wood, a musician and percussionist herself, eventually requested that Kozlowski, long skilled in drum repair and construction, make her a drum.

Nearly 20 years ago, he sent a drum to her place in California, made from wood from a felled tree in Ithaca. Soon after that, Wood moved back to Ithaca to raise her daughter.

When it came time for Kozlowski to look for a new Toko owner, he remembered Wood’s passion and dedication and reached out to her for the position. Wood, she said, was initially taken off guard.

“I never thought I would own a drum shop, so I ended up doing a lot of considering and research,” she said.

Wood said that she’s always seen Toko as a special store, one unique from other music stores in Ithaca. Toko Imports focuses on world percussion and a blending of cultures, which Wood enjoys.

“We say that we have an experiential, hands-on store,” she said. “We encourage people to play and touch things, … try things out so they can really experience the music.”

As interesting a journey as it has been so far, Wood said, her daughter reaching 17 made her think about her future, and Wood decided she wanted to pass Toko on to someone just as dedicated as she was.

Most might go for a simple interview process to find a new owner, but Wood was inspired by an article that she read about a person in Maine who passed down their inn through a contest.

“I had read that story a couple of years ago, and when I was thinking of options, somehow it came up as an ‘a-ha’ moment where I thought, ‘I wonder if this would work,’” Wood said.

Wood went to the building manager, her small business consultant at Alternatives Impact – a program through Alternatives Federal Credit Union – and others for feedback, and Wood said everyone was enthusiastic about the idea.

“They thought, ‘That’s really thinking outside the box,’” she said.
Since last November, Wood has been working to put that idea into action.
“In the process of researching, it was really important to me, if we were going to do this, we were going to go above and beyond, making sure that it’s clean and precise,” Wood said.

The contest in Maine was done through an essay submission, and through her research, Wood discovered that that format presented some problems for people who were qualified for running the business but weren’t the greatest writers. That’s when Wood thought of making her format be a series of questions that contestants can fill out online, which will be judged based on the spirit of the answer, not its grammar.

“It’s going to be more about pulling out the narrative, like what is the vision and the quality of what somebody’s vision would be,” Wood said.

Creating the contest turned out to be a much larger undertaking than Wood was expecting, and she spent six months working with a national sweepstakes company to draw up official rules and regulations.

Wood said the responses have been positive so far since its launching. Still, it has turned quite a few heads at the same time.

“It’s just not the most usual thing, so it is a little bit of a scratch your head, ‘how does that work?’” Wood said. “But I think what I see happening is people thinking outside the box and breaking limitations on what we thought was possible.”

The contest’s unique nature, Wood said, has a great way of attracting passionate people that truly want the position – a response that Wood said wouldn’t be as easy with a traditional interview process.

“We need hopeful ideas,” she said. “I think part of it that’s exciting for me is that people are getting inspired by it and they’re getting excited by it.”

Wood remembers what she was like when she first took over for Kozlowski, and she said she was always trying to honor his vision while he was encouraging her to make the place her own. Now, she wants to encourage others to apply their vision to Toko.

“Tom was very much, ‘It’s yours – do what you want with it,’” she said. “I am more open now to seeing someone take this on in a new or totally new direction. I’d love to see what someone can build from what both Tom and I contributed to in Toko.”

A portion of every entry fee will be donated to Alternatives Impact, Wood said, because she wants to give back to an organization that has helped her so much on her journey.

“They’ve been a place where I’ve felt well-received on a number of different fronts,” she said. “They were just encouraging me to think big, and [then] I started thinking bigger.”

No matter who the new owner turns out to be, Wood is optimistic that she’ll find a worthwhile pick.

“It’s a well-established business that I’m excited to see somebody use what’s here and make it their own,” she said.

For more information or to register for the contest, visit wintokoimports.awardsplatform.com. Any questions should be directed to Wood at tokoimports@gmail.com.

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