From Hollywood Actress to Toy Store CEO

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Five years ago, Kellie Martin, the actress famous for playing Becca Thacher on the early ‘90s TV series “Life Goes On” and later for her roles on “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” was doing a photo shoot for PEOPLE Magazine about being a new mom to daughter Maggie. “At the time I was searching for safe toys to surround Maggie with,” she says. “We weren’t doing any plastic or battery toys, but I was having trouble finding stuff.”

She started chatting with the photographer about her plight, when, in between camera clicks, the woman mentioned this cool wooden camera she had recently purchased for her own daughter from a store called Romp, which sells old-fashioned, creative toys. A budding photographer herself, Martin loved the idea of a beautiful play camera for her daughter. “I fell in love with it because it forces kids to use their imagination,” says Martin, who bought the same camera shortly after the shoot. “Maggie played with it when she was eight months old and she still picks it up all the time now. It’s what a toy should be—something that she keeps coming back to.”

It didn’t take long for Martin to become a regular at Romp’s online store. The brick-and-mortar operation in Brooklyn closed in 2008 when its owner, Jenn LaBelle, moved upstate, but the store remained a popular online destination. This past June, however, LaBelle sent all her customers an email saying she was closing the store to focus on running her other business, Twine, an online gift store. Martin’s first thought: “I can’t let it close!” She called her husband, distraught. “I said right away I think we should buy it,” says Martin. “I didn’t even know if she wanted to sell, but I said to my husband ‘You’ve got to call her!’”

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Kellie’s husband, Keith Christian, is the entrepreneur in the family. (The two met as college students at Yale University.) A lawyer turned cattle rancher—he owns a ranch in Colorado, which he runs from Los Angeles—Christian called up LaBelle shortly after Martin received the email and talked to her for an hour and a half about the store. The two hit it off. Two months later, he and his wife became the proud new owners of Romp. “This is definitely Kellie’s business,” says her husband. “I am just the support staff.”

Taking over as the owner of an online children’s toy store isn’t exactly easy, especially when your other job takes you away on location. The mom to five-year-old Maggie continues to act fulltime: She’s a recurring guest star on Lifetime’s hit show Army Wives and has a Hallmark Channel movie, “Always a Bride,” coming out in July. But Martin has learned how to run the business via email and cell phone when she’s away and her husband chips in too, manning the books.

While the move to become a retail owner was impulsive, it was also savvy. Martin took over a company that already had a loyal customer base and had a departing owner who was willing to guide her through the transition. “We skipped the pure startup phase by purchasing a company that was operating profitably and had strong brand identification,” says Christian. “We are way ahead of where we would have been if we had just started a business in August.” And the store has remained profitable under their watch. “Being my own boss isn’t something I thought I could do,” says Martin. “If Keith and Jenn [LaBelle] hadn’t been encouraging me, I don’t think I could have done it.”

Martin’s enthusiasm for the products and her thrill at sharing her finds with customers is what won over LaBelle in the first place. “In the beginning when I heard a Hollywood actress wanted to do this, I thought it would be a vanity project, she would put her name on it and hire people to do it,” says LaBelle. “But as soon as I met her it was clear she wanted to be very hands on, down to packing the boxes. I was really impressed.”

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