by Claire Sykes
Out on a Whimsey Toys in Belfast, Maine, operates in an ornate 100-plus-year-old building on a busy downtown street corner. “There are so many cool things about this space,” says storeowner Deb Hall. “It lends itself very well to being a toy store.”
Among her favorite features (and her customers’ too) is an old bank vault with thick cement walls. It’s obvious that the cement was made with sand from the seashore nearby – there are shells embedded in it. By envisioning the area through the eyes of her small shoppers, Deb turned it into a cave where she displays plush dragons, spiders, snakes and impulse items. A tent invites kids to hang out.
Going into the store is a magical experience, but on March 19, Out on a Whimsey advised its customers to order online through Facebook Messenger. “We will help you find the perfect item and arrange for either pickup or local delivery,” said a Facebook post. “We will also be doing private appointments for our customers to shop for what they need. Thank you so much for all of your love and support and together we will make it through.”
Since everyone deserves a bit of whimsical inspiration right now, we thought we’d join Deb Hall to give you a store tour.
edplay: What are some of the other cool things about your space?
Deb Hall: This building was originally a Masonic Temple, and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The architecture is very elaborate and people are just drawn to it. It’s right in the middle of downtown, on the corner of two busy streets with a traffic light.
We operated in a 1,000-square-foot space here for 15 years, alongside some law offices. In 2017, a developer bought it and the lawyers moved out. We moved into their space, double the size of ours. It was a bank in the 1960s.
Our landlord replaced the walls and ceiling and added pendant lights and fans. Painters even did a faux finish on the interior front door casing so it would match the natural mahogany of the original windows. The beautiful hardwood floors were refinished, and the original big front doors, found in the attic, were installed. They’re painted purple!
We are able to use tall fixtures and display large products thanks to 15-foot-high ceilings.
There’s so much joyfulness in this space. We have the whole corner with windows that face High Street in the front and Main Street on the side. They fill our store with natural light and grab the attention of people walking by on Main Street.
How do you inspire play in your space?
Because we have more room, there are stations all around the store where children can test drive the products. One 10- by 12-foot play area includes a Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant Play Set and the Fresh Mart Grocery Store. They help teach kids to take turns and to play with children they may have never met before.
We have no problem opening a box for customers and using it as a sample. Some of our bestsellers are the ones kids have played with in the store!
It’s important to us that they try out our products. That way, they and their parents see how well they’re made, that they’re likely to hold their interest and help develop skills. Our baby section is full of samples. In our art-supplies section, pens and paint are available for kids to use. A sign invites them to “Make a Masterpiece” and we hang up their artwork for display.
Who are your customers?
Seventy-five to 80 percent are local families. We see them at least once a week on their way to a birthday party. They call ahead and we have a gift for them that’s wrapped up and ready.
We also see people who have to drive a ways to get here. There aren’t that many toy stores in this neck of the woods – the closest is 20 miles south in Camden, Maine. There’s no Target or Walmart within 45 minutes of us.
Belfast, a small city with 6,700 residents, is one of several historic seaport towns in Midcoast Maine. The area is busy with tourists and a stop along the way for people heading to Acadia National Park.
You recently opened a second store.
Yes, in Blue Hill, 35 miles east of here. The community is touristy and similar to Belfast, but not as big. It’s on a peninsula with lots of fishermen and retirees. They needed us – before we moved there last October, people had to drive an hour to find something to buy for a child. My landlord suggested the second store. He thought Main Street in Blue Hill needed more diversity. I’d been thinking of opening another location for about a year, so I told him I’d like to try. I already had the product and some displays. We asked our vendors for more displays, and two weeks later we opened.
It’s about 1,000 square feet, and there’s no room to expand. The building is older but not historic. It used to be a diner/restaurant, which has worked out pretty well. We host gaming groups there on Saturdays – Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons
& Dragons – and they like the tables and chairs.
The space isn’t as beautiful as our Belfast location, but people are happy we’re there. There’s not a lot of extra space for play areas, but the grocery store is set up and baby toys are out to play with. Like our other store, anyone who wants to play with a toy can try it out.
I couldn’t have done it without Brandy Cardenas, our store manager here and now in Blue Hill. She’s worked in the toy industry for 15 years, mostly at Timbuk Toys in Denver, before moving back to her hometown in Maine. She just has incredible knowledge. When she first came into the store, we hit it off right away. I could see her passion for toys. She just loves what she does and she’s very good at it.
Is she your sole employee?
My son Bryant, who joined me here in 2016, is the manager of the Belfast store and we have two other employees. A college-age gal, Moriah Pinckney, comes in a few hours a week; and Scot Cannon, a professional mime and singer, comes into the store on weekends. He demonstrates our most popular toys. Scot will stand outside with a larger-than-life plush penguin and wear a bright orange floppy hunting hat, for instance, or he’s got a photographer’s vest on with puppets in all the pockets.
For the summer, we hire four more part-time people, so we have nine people altogether.
June through October is busy because of tourists – July and August in particular. December is the busiest month.
Who are your competitors?
Of course we’re up against Amazon, but I don’t see a lot of price-comparing from the locals. They want us to succeed. The tourists aren’t embarrassed to say they can get something cheaper online. We can’t compete on price with Amazon, so we don’t even try.
But we can compete by helping shoppers find the perfect purchase and then wrapping it up beautifully. We have dozens of papers and ribbons to choose from. They can’t get that from Amazon.
Will you open more stores?
I don’t think so, although I’ve thought about the Bangor, Maine, area because there are only a couple of toy stores there. But it’s a bigger city and that feels stressful to me. I like the smaller towns where you know people.
I’m 61 and in four or five years I’ll let my son take over the business. Maybe I’ll travel some, though we have chickens and a dog that keep us close to home. And then I’d like to garden.
You’ve been in business now for 25 years. Do you have any words of wisdom for toy retailers like yourself?
Don’t worry about the Amazons, Walmarts and Targets. Don’t worry about the other toy stores around you. Do the best that you can for your business. And be friendly, with a sense that business is always great and the day is always sunny. After all, the most enjoyable things you can sell are toys.
Growing up on an island not far from Belfast in the 1970s, Deb Hall spent a lot of time hanging out at her grandparents’ lunch-counter/candy-and-variety store. What an influence it had on her. She started her own retail business when she was 17, selling locally made pottery and art to wealthy tourists on the island’s summer resort community, Dark Harbor. Since its founding in 1888, Dark Harbor has hosted prominent families from New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Deb left Maine to attend college in Florida, to study horticulture, which she calls “another big love of mine.” But retail kept calling her. So did Maine. In 1979, she returned and opened a gift store in Belfast. After a few years, during the “country living” craze, she got into wholesaling. She hired a few people to sew little cloth bunnies, cows and dolls, which she sold to gift stores around the country.
In 1995, Deb partnered with a friend to open a gift shop. Then in 2016, when her son Bryant graduated from college with a degree in entrepreneurship, he wanted to open a toy store. Deb asked him to work with her at Out on a Whimsey, and it officially became Out on a Whimsey Toys.