What is the difference between an ordinary toy shop and a Christian one? As The Entertainer store opens its doors in Belfast’s CastleCourt Shopping Centre, now we know. No Harry Potter merchandise, no Halloween-related products and definitely no toy machine-guns. Oh, and no Trolls either. Gary Grant, the born-again Christian owner of the Entertainer chain, said the tufty-haired dolls made him feel “uneasy in my spirit”. The Entertainer only sells toys that he considers “wholesome”. And he keeps his shops closed on a Sunday.
Why not, you might say. It’s Mr Grant’s business, and he’s entitled to sell — or not sell — whatever he likes, whenever he likes, according to whichever value system he chooses.
That’s true. But what’s so soul-threatening about Harry Potter? To hear some evangelical Christians talk, you’d think that JK Rowling’s books — not to mention the films and all the spin-off toys — are some kind of instantaneous portal to hell. And not a grain of floo powder in sight.
It’s the references to “cult practices such as witchcraft and sorcery”, which apparently may attract children to the occult, that the toy shop boss objects to. “I am ultimately responsible and accountable for all that goes on within the business,” he said. “I have to oversee the products and make sure I feel happy with the items we are selling.”
I’m sorry, but I simply don’t understand how reading an exciting story about witches, wizards and other fantastical creatures, or watching a film about them, or even just playing with a Lego figurine of Harry Potter, is in any way damaging to a child. They’re not going to turn round and say: “Hey Mum, can Santa bring me a ouija board for Christmas?”
Likewise, it’s difficult to comprehend how a Troll doll is invested with the extraordinary power to corrupt a child’s morals. I’d ban Trolls from the house all right, but purely on aesthetic grounds, because with their wrinkly faces and their garish hair, they’re just so revoltingly ugly. Not because they’re Satan’s little plastic emissaries.
This is yet another instance of the conservative Christian hysteria that periodically flares up about all kinds of innocuous, everyday things. Yoga, for example. For me, it’s a weekly practice which I use to stretch, unwind and hopefully relax. But for people like Londonderry priest Father Roland Colhoun, it’s one step closer to “the Kingdom of Darkness”. Last year, he warned that taking up yoga — and even having Indian head massages — meant taking a real risk with your spiritual health.
For Christians of a fundamentalist bent, evil is always hovering in frighteningly close proximity, waiting for its moment to strike. If you’re not constantly on the lookout, keeping your eyes peeled, then whoops — you’re a goner.
The thing I object to with Mr Grant’s toy shop empire is the pre-selection process. He has already personally determined, in advance, what’s acceptable for our children to play with.
But surely that’s up to us, as parents, and as consumers, to decide. Most of us don’t consider a model of Voldemort, or a spooky Halloween mask, to be an existential threat to our offspring. So why not give us the choice?
Besides, once you start banning items from your stores on moral grounds, you leave yourself open to all sorts of questions about ethical consistency. The Entertainer may refuse to stock toy machine-guns, but on my trip to the store I noticed that they do sell a toy gun shooting set, complete with a pistol and a large rifle bearing the name ‘Speedy Kid’. Suitable for cowboys aged three and up, apparently.
Why is that perfectly acceptable, yet a Harry Potter jigsaw, or a colouring book, is considered to be halfway to Hades?
None of this is a worry to Gary Grant, however. Despite donating 10% of its profits to charity, The Entertainer is flourishing. It’s the fastest growing toy store in the UK, and the company’s 2015 accounts show a £22m increase in turnover. Far from being an impediment to profit, Mr Grant’s faith and his much-publicised ban on anything he regards as unwholesome or unsuitable for children is proving to be very good for business.
I don’t believe that this is because customers long for moral guidance on their shopping preferences. Rather, in a field of identikit toy stores, virtually indistinguishable from each other, it provides The Entertainer with a unique selling point.
Fair enough. But I’d prefer to shop in a place where my choice — not the owner’s superstitions — comes first.