July 1, 2010

Augusta toy store to close July 12

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Phil Judd looks at the pending closure of the educational toy store he's run for the last 33 years, the Painted Horse, as the landing of a plane.

He intends to take flight again -- in a different, metaphorical plane but with a similar flight plan and destination in mind.

The store is closing, tentatively July 12, though Judd hopes to win an extension from his landlord until the end of the month.

Once the store closes, he hopes to start a nonprofit group to help take its place, with a mission of supporting families and advocating for, and to, parents becoming active in their own children's educations.

"The phrase 'going out of business' just doesn't feel right to me, especially since we haven't really been a business in the traditional sense, anyway," said Judd, 70.

"So I look at it like landing a plane. I don't intend to crash-land it. We're landing one plane, retooling, and taking off in another."

Judd started the store in 1977 in downtown Augusta before moving to its current location in a row of stores next to Shaw's Plaza off Western Avenue.

Over the years, countless parents and teachers stocked up on educational toys, games, puzzles and books at the store, which Judd and a sign outside the shop proudly describe as the home of "toys that teach."

"It was both of my daughters' favorite store and is now my granddaughter Kaley's favorite," said Kay Rand of Augusta, a customer of more than 25 years who has shopped there for her two daughters and three granddaughters.

"Excursions to the Painted Horse to pick out 'just one thing' were -- and are -- wonderful treats for me, too," Rand said, "as their excitement mounts as they move from one display to the next. Both Kaley and I are hugely disappointed that the store is closing."

Judd said the store just isn't bringing in enough income to cover expenses.

Nancy Ellis of Farmingdale has worked at the store for about six years. She also has been a teacher and shopped there since her son, who is now in college, was just a youngster.

"We're getting a number of customers who come in and say how sad they are to see the store closing," Ellis said. "They share stories of coming in and finding something unique for a birthday or special occasion for their child.

"It's very special. It's a small business that just has that connection to people in the community.

"I really don't know why (it's not getting enough customers to remain open). I ask myself that question."

Judd said he hasn't been able to afford advertising for the store, relying instead on word of mouth. He said some parents today seem intent on following trends and going for the hottest, licensed-character toy of the moment -- paying little attention to toys that help children develop.

Rand -- who is a columnist for the Kennebec Journal -- theorizes the Painted Horse has lost business to big-box stores because of marketing blitzes by toy makers.

"The toy makers carried by the Painted Horse did not engage in those marketing blitzes, so kids weren't clamoring for the toys that they carried," she said. "I've purchased some of those toys over the years, and the excitement around them lasts for a few days. Some of the toys I've purchased at the Painted Horse for my daughters are still generating excitement for my granddaughters."

Judd is looking to form a group to help support parents, whom Judd describes as the most important educators in the lives of their children.

Judd, whose own children are grown, has a potential name picked out for his proposed new nonprofit group, Maine Families in Education, as well as a general idea of its mission and purpose.

Details such as filing paperwork to secure nonprofit organization status, the structure of the group, membership fees and its physical location are all still to be determined. He welcomes interest in the group, and may be contacted at the store or by e-mail at ptdhorse@aol.com.

The group, Judd said, would likely have a physical location in the area with a storefront where educational toys and materials could be purchased, could advocate for parents in the Legislature and in other forums, offer encouragement and education on parenting, and provide opportunities for families to network. He said 50 to 60 people have expressed interest in the group.

Rand said she is intrigued by the idea, and said parents should be encouraged to help make sure their children are lifelong learners.

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