The yo-yo expert: Easthampton online toy retailer forges community across the globe

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  • Friends Quentin Godet, left, of Conflans, France, and former Massachusetts state yo-yo champion Tylor McCallumore of Northampton look through the collection of yo-yos at the YoYoExpert.com headquarters and warehouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Godet was on a return trip home from his fifth-place finish in the 4A (offstring) Division of the 2019 World YoYo Contest in Cleveland the previous weekend. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • André Boulay, owner of YoYoExpert.com, talks about the online store and community space in the website’s Easthampton headquarters and warehouse last Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A display used for YoYoExpert.com's regular "throwdown" held Eastworks. Photographed at the website's headquarters and warehouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • YoYoExpert.com staffer Garrett Kwasniewski, left, and owner Andre Boulay talk about the online store and community space in the website's Easthampton headquarters and warehouse on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andre Boulay, owner of YoYoExpert.com, plays with a silver butterfly yo-yo in the website's Easthampton headquarters and warehouse while talking about the online store and community space on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bins of yo-yos ready to ship from the YoYoExpert.com headquarters and warehouse. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andre Boulay, owner of YoYoExpert.com, holds one of the accessories sold from the website's Easthampton headquarters and warehouse on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tim Basto packages yo-yos for shipping at the YoYoExpert.com headquarters and warehouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bins of yo-yo accessories ready to ship at the YoYoExpert.com headquarters and warehouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Quentin Godet, left, of Conflans, France, talks about his fifth-place finish in the "off string" division of the World Yo-Yo Contest in Cleveland during a visit to the YoYoExpert.com headquarters and warehouse in Easthampton on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2019 3:25:28 PM

EASTHAMPTON — André Boulay’s obsession with yo-yos happened almost by accident. When he was in high school in 2000, his mother brought his brother to get yo-yo lessons at Northampton’s A2Z Science & Learning Store in Northampton, and Boulay tagged along.

“I still remember seeing someone throw a yo-yo when I was in the store at one point and thinking, ‘Doesn’t look too cool to me,’” he said.

It wasn’t until an instructor showed him that a yo-yo could “sleep” at the end so a player could do tricks that Boulay realized there was much more to the toy than he ever thought.

“I had no idea. In my head, yo-yos were what most people think of yo-yos — that they go up and down and you can’t do tricks,” Boulay said, noting that his preconception was wholly inaccurate.

More than a decade later, Boulay, 34, is often found in the Easthampton office of YoYoExpert.com, an online yo-yo store, community forum and repository of educational yo-yo trick videos that he founded in 2008. When he’s not overseeing a small staff at the Eastworks-based warehouse — or running A2Z, which he also now owns — Boulay can be found casually throwing and landing intricate, multistep tricks on a silver butterfly yo-yo.

YoYoExpert.com started in October 2008, not long after a successful series of educational internet videos teaching yo-yo tricks thrust Boulay into niche fame. An influx of emails from curious hobbyists from around the world prompted him to create a website dedicated to teaching people tricks. All the while, Boulay juggled a busy schedule that included teaching yo-yo lessons at A2Z during the day and pursuing a master’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a degree he attained.

“I took it to the next level,” he said. “What we taught was more through a couple of basic levels, and I added four or five master or modern levels that no one had actually seen before ... A lot of people hadn’t seen that many tricks being taught at a high level.”

In 2009, Boulay began selling yo-yos from different brands from a location in Amherst, originally because he wanted to buy a nicer camera to record tricks. But it didn’t take long before the online part of the business took off. Boulay says YoYoExpert.com now sells around 1,000 yo-yos each month from about 15 core brands.

But the business doesn’t just sell yo-yos — it also sell bearings, strings and other accessories essential for any intense hobbyist, from popular brands such as Duncan and Yomega. Some yo-yos start at $4, while some have an asking price of $300, he said, though most land around $50.

At its second floor office and warehouse space, YoYoExpert.com has a small number of employees who are tasked with managing the website, taking promotional photos of products and sending out orders to customers around the world.

One entire side of the space includes tall racks of meticulously organized accessories and yo-yos, while the other includes a meeting space, desks and an area dedicated to recording instructional trick videos. Every so often, Boulay said, someone comes into the space to buy product from them directly — though most of their sales take place online.

Due to the online nature of the business, Boulay said in recent years the company has been forced to come up with different ways to stay relevant in the era of massive online retailers such as Amazon.

Boulay said it’s been “difficult” to keep up with Amazon because the retail giant can ship items faster and cheaper, though he said YoYoExpert.com does have free shipping in some instances. Customers have become conditioned to expect the speed of service Amazon provides from every online retailer, he said.

But a feature of Boulay’s website that Amazon can not replicate are the educational instructional videos and large community presence on the website’s forums, he said.

“They’ll always beat us on next-day shipping costs, but it’s not the end of the world,” Boulay said. “We are the store that’s built around the community.”

That online community transcends the internet, he said. Users trade yo-yos online, but also use it as a way to meet up at contests and conventions, much like the Massachusetts State YoYo Contest, which YoYoExpert.com hosts and Boulay started as an undergraduate at UMass.

“Once you get into yo-yo, and you meet someone else who also does yo-yo, you just know they’re cool. And the awkwardness you would have interacting with someone you’ve never met before just disappears,” he said.

From 2001 until 2006, Boulay held his own on stage, competing regularly, placing first in the nation at a contest in 2003, among other achievements. Teaching, however, was one of the main reasons he stopped.

“I really enjoy working and showing people how amazing it is rather than hopping on stage,” he said.

And though Boulay’s days of competing and managing teams are over — he was in charge of A2Z’s yo-yo team during the mid-2000s — he still loves going to contests and meeting people who have been impacted by his work.

One of his fans turned yo-yo expert is Quentin Godet, 23, from France, who was visiting Boulay’s office space after placing fifth in the offstring yo-yo trick division at the World YoYo Contest in Cleveland earlier this month. Offstring tricks involve a yo-yo that is not connected to a string — rather, the user releases the toy into the air while trying to catch it on a string.

Godet started competing in late 2011, and credits much of his interest in yo-yoing to watching Boulay’s videos.

“He was like a legend to me when I first started, and now I’m here with him. It’s pretty crazy,” Godet said.

Godet echoed Boulay’s thoughts on the social aspect of yo-yoing, saying that it has allowed him to learn about and travel to many different countries and meet countless like-minded people. Yo-yos are not as popular in France, he said, so he’s grateful he can share his passion with people around the globe.

Traveling and competing even served as a catalyst to learn English, he said.

“I was such a shy guy from the beginning, and it really opened me to the world,” he said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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