Yasser al-Messiry, PhD, stands in front of Al-Masry Al-Youm, twirling a yo-yo. Or rather, an Astrojax Plus, consisting of three large rubber spheres on a string. “This takes some practice,” al-Messiri mumbles as he concentrates on trying to get two of the spheres to orbit each other. He succeeds—briefly—before the orbits collapse and he fumbles, dropping the toy. He looks up and grins, as if to prove his point—and he’s right. After all, the Astrojax Plus isn’t your average toy—how many other yo-yos have been taken to outer space by NASA?
Al-Messiri is the founder, partner, and general manager of Mindwinder, a store that specializes in selling quality toys that address the intellect. “Most toys are consumable goods with short life-spans, and they only deliver short-lived satisfaction for the child and parent alike,” al-Messiri explains. “That’s not what we do. The kinds of toys we sell are designed to provide years of satisfaction. We have stuff that can last for generations; toys that, unless you throw them in molten lava or something, can be passed on to your children and grandchildren.”
Midwinder’s collection of intellectual toys are, according to al-Messiri, “a concoction of our own making,” meaning that he has personally selected every product sold at his store, choosing only what he believes will offer strong entertainment and educational value. “I look for innovation,” he explains as he untangles his Astrojax Plus. “The type of innovation that results in toys that will become classics.” One look at the store’s busy shelves validates his claim. From a vast collection of construction toys and elaborate-looking science kits to puzzles and brain-teasers, wooden toys, small robotics, twenty-first century yo-yos and Frisbees, and a wide assortment of what he calls “neat and nifty stuff,” Mindwinder’s is every science geek’s dream, although al-Messiri believes any child would benefit from the type of toys exclusively available at his store.
“For any child, diversity contributes significantly to the learning process, and that gives them an intellectual edge” he explains, emphasizing that diversity should also be reflected in a child’s playthings. A strict regime of video games, or even intellectual toys for that matter, could hinder a child’s potential for developing in a well-rounded manner. “Video games aren’t entirely useless,” al-Messiri says. “For example, they’re good for improving hand-eye coordination. But they are anti-social, and that can limit a child’s brain development in a way where their creativity suffers.” Consequently, the child’s brain becomes much more inhibited, and they lose certain skills. As al-Messiri points out, this is already evident in today’s younger generations. “A lot of architects today can barely draw”’ he says. “They depend too heavily on computer programs and software to draw for them. Similarly, look at students’ handwriting, and how it’s deteriorated.” He should know, having spent several years as a high-school teacher and college professor at the American University in Cairo, as well as having three children of his own.
For al-Messiri, this concern serves as the backbone of his business. “I started Mindwinder because I felt it would make a difference at a social and intellectual level. I believed it would be worth something beyond economic value—all those things that you can’t put in numbers on an income statement.”
The selection at Mindwinder is effectively designed to appeal to children of all ages, including toddlers and pre-schoolers. Young ones with an affinity for wooden toys will find the charming, cheerful simplicity of Plan Toys especially appealing, with the company manufacturing everything from dollhouses, vehicles, and playsets to construction toys and logic blocks and other products designed to enhance skills such as balancing and categorization to children aged six months to four years. Plan Toys also make simple, elegant musical instruments that actually work—including drums, xylophones, percussion sets, and even banjos—as well as a Sit N’ Walk puppy, complete with wheels and its own leash, all of which are available at Mindwinder.
For older children, especially those more interested in the Discovery Channel than the Cartoon Network, there’s a comprehensive selection of Thames & Kosmos science kits covering all areas of interest, from space-exploration and fossil-analyzing to candy-making. “Some of these [kits] are very advanced,” says al-Messiri. “The instruction manuals are like textbooks, and they introduce concepts that most prospective engineers come across in their third year of university.” One particularly challenging series of science kits focuses on electronics and software programming, with one set including all the necessary components a child would need to build and program their own microprocessor, as well as 148 possible experiments. Another kit, with its bulky packaging labeled Green Essentials Edition and promising “powerhouse experiments in sustainability”, teaches the user how to build and power a home in an environmentally friendly manner.
Thames & Kosmos also produce a line of similar kits geared towards younger children, aged five and up. The Little Labs series are designed to help children establish a firm concept of, among other things, physics, time, and navigation.
“These are also pretty cool,” al-Messiri smiles, gesturing towards a row of small packages labeled Triassic Triops, containing, apparently, prehistoric shrimp eggs, or as advertised, “dinosaur shrimp.” Al-Messiri explains that “the eggs stay in hibernation indefinitely, until they find favorable conditions,” or in other words, water and light, whereupon they hatch and grow and perform all sort of aquatic acrobats, living for an average of three months. ”You have to be careful when hatching them, though,” al-Messiri grins mischievously. “They’re cannibals.”
Also in supply at Mindwinder are endless varieties of puzzles and brain-teasers such as the popular cast-iron Japanese pieces, as well as locally-designed wooden puzzles. The store also carries an impressive supply of construction toys—such as GeoMag, K’Nex, Kapla and others—of which al-Messiri is particularly fond.
“Of course, my favorite product is also the least profitable,” he laughs, crouching in front of a large Cuboro set of small wooden cubes arranged into a multi-leveled track. “The idea is to design a track by combining cubes with different tunnels, half-pipes, and drops to create a continuous track for the marble,” al-Messiri explains as he drops a marble onto the track and, with great interest, watches it speed through its course. “There are international competitions held to see who can design the best track,” he says as the marble reaches the end of its course.
With Mindwinder celebrating its fifth year this October, al-Messiri is clearly proud of everything he has been able to provide through his creation, even if business conditions have been less than ideal. “We’ve gotten some splendid feedback over the years. Our hardcore clients love what we do, but they are few. The problem is we sell specialized products for a niche market.” Case in point, Mindwinder only recently sold the last of al-Messiri’s beloved Cuboro sets—from a shipment ordered five years ago.
The biggest difficulty, however, has been dealing with the “incredibly thick bureaucracy” plaguing Egyptian institutions. “Not to mention hidden costs,” al-Messiri sighs. “Every stage, every checkpoint needs a bribe, just to get things going. And trust, in general, is a huge issue. It has to be when the judicial system is known to be as ineffective as it is. Our legal system and its lack of implementation encourage unethical behavior.” Widespread corruption has taken an irreversible toll on the country, and worse still, its population. “This constant insecurity that most people live in has created a state of national callousness,” he says, before proceeding to list the consequences of a history of looting and dishonesty. “The people on top have not only milked the cow, they’ve pulled off its nipples.”
While al-Messiri is quick to point out all the positive experiences he has had through Mindwinder—the first thing he mentions are his employees and the people he works with—the youthful 40-year-old finds it difficult to stay optimistic in the face of the current business climate. “I don’t have anything positive really to say about the business environment here, except that we’re maybe better off than Nigeria,” he says, forcing a smile. “Financially speaking, the next few years will be extremely tough on most businesses. Not the type of storm you’d want to try to weather.”
Despite his predicament, al-Messiri remains calm, even pleasant. But his concern is evident, and for good reason. Given the products it sells, and the attention it provides to the development of our children, Mindwinder is not the type of store this country can afford to lose.
Mindwinder Heliopolis: 25 Ibrahim Salem St. 02- 24183496
Mindwinder City Stars: Unit 4135 02- 24802403