Toy store moving into Masonic Temple corner space

Out on a Whimsey gets coveted location; other businesses find new homes
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 16, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Out on a Whimsey owner Deb Hall and her son Bryant Hall pose in the 2,000-square-foot Masonic building space that is slated to be the new home of her downtown toy store.

Belfast — Things are starting to shake out at the Masonic Temple building. Notably, the street-level corner storefront — viewed broadly as one of the best retail spaces in the city since it became vacant a year ago — will soon be home to Out on a Whimsey toy store, which is moving from its current location in the same building.

Deb Hall started the business 25 years ago, and the new space will be her sixth location in that time. For much of its life, the store offered a mix of gifts and toys. But six or seven years ago, she noticed people weren't buying general gifts as much, and at the same time, new gift shops were opening each year.

Her son, Bryant Hall, was considering opening a toy store at the time — he ended up opening The Cool Spot ice cream shop, and today owns Pizza Permare in Northport. Deb Hall agreed that there was a need for a dedicated toy store in Belfast. She converted her store and hasn't looked back.

Today, the top of her business plan for the new space lists the goal of being "the best toy store in the state of Maine."

At 2,000 square feet, the corner space is a little less than twice the size of Hall's current space. With the additional square footage, Hall is hoping to get a leg up on large online retailers by offering areas where children can try out toys, along with other perks you could only get at a bricks-and-mortar store. In the industry, this approach is known as "experiential retail."

The new location will have enough space — both indoors, and in a small courtyard accessible from the store — for birthday parties and other events. Guardians and grandparents will be able to rent strollers and car seats from Out on a Whimsey when they have children visiting.

There will more merchandise, but Hall said the added space will give some breathing room to the current stock and allow for aisles wide enough to be navigated by a stroller or a wheelchair. New items will probably lean toward educational toys. Hall noted that toys based around STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) concepts were among the hottest gifts last holiday season. With these kinds of toys, she said, customer service becomes more valuable.

"They want to walk into a store and have someone help them with that, compared to a shot in the dark with Amazon," she said.

The street-level space on the corner of the former Masonic Temple has been used for retail in the past, but it's been a long time. The law offices of Blake & Hazard occupied the space for 40 years, often with blinds drawn on the large plate-glass windows that wrap the corner. After the law offices closed in January 2017, merchants uphill from the law offices noted that visitors passing the blank walls of the building often thought they had reached the end of the shopping district.

When the Masonic Temple building opened in 1878, the corner space was occupied by a jeweler, Horace Eugene McDonald. Other stores in the building at the time included a confectioner, a grocer, a dry goods dealer and a milliner. The corner space later became home to offices of Mutual Union Telegraph Co., a branch of People's National Bank, Merrill Trust Co., and in the early 1970s, a state welfare office.

John Warren, a developer from St. Petersburg, Fla., bought the building in early 2017 and undertook a major restoration that continues today. Notably, the old roof was replaced last summer. As part of the renovations to the corner storefront, the entrance is being moved to the corner of the building and will feature original nine-foot-tall doors, which were discovered in the attic of the building.

Warren said the corner entrance wasn't in the original 1878 building plans, but it appears in later photos of the building. The newly renovated space includes a heat pump system, and Warren said he is looking into options for heating in the rest of the building. Historically, the four-story building has been heated with a furnace with a single temperature control that left some spaces frigid and others sweltering hot.

"That's not good enough; not today," Warren said, noting that he was surprised by the temperatures in the different spaces when he first visited.

"Fuel oil is more expensive (today) than the economy of electric with the right equipment," he said. "Naturally, we're looking to conserve costs in terms of the tenants' interests and the building's interest. I think it's extremely important for tenants to be able to control the temperature in their own space."

Interior renovations of the corner space revealed mahogany trim and columns long obscured by the interior walls added when the space was converted to law offices in the 1970s. Toward the back of the space are the concrete remnants of the old bank safe, which Warren decided to leave after considering the cost to remove it. The ragged recess might have been a liability for some tenants, but Hall saw an opportunity to make a dragon's lair or a dungeon with a reading area.

"We instantly saw it and said 'Yay!'" she said. "Everybody else said, 'Oh my God. What am I going to do with that?'"

Heavenly Socks yarn shop will be moving into the High Street space currently occupied by Out on a Whimsey. Owner Helen Sahadi opened the store in previously unused basement space in the Masonic Temple building 15 years ago and said it's been a good run, but she's looking forward to having more room to display her goods, particularly her stock of Maine-made yarns, which she sells under the name Fiber of Maine.

Sahadi is dropping "socks" from her name. When she opened the store 15 years ago, she used an old tax ID name from her previous home business of making socks with astrological glyphs. The new location will be called Heavenly Yarns, but Sahadi was quick to say that nothing her customers have come to love about the store is going to change.

"I don't want to be a boutique store; that's not me," she said. "People are still going to be able to find $2.25 skeins of yarn."

Two former tenants of the Masonic Temple building have found new locations. Permanent Expressions tattoo studio moved from the basement of the building to a space diagonally across the intersection, above Alexia's Pizza.

Bella Books is moving to 33 Pendleton Lane. Gary Guida, who co-owns the business with Kim Zahares, said they are renovating the space now and are hoping to open this spring.

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