AUGUSTA – For 33 years, the Painted Horse has drawn parents and teachers from across the state to Augusta in search of educational, hands-on toys and books meant to instill a lifetime of learning, instead of the hottest-selling, heavily advertised hot toy of the moment.

Unless owner Phil Judd finds a new way to keep things going, that 33-year mission of selling “toys that teach,” as the store’s motto states, could come to an end.

Judd said the store is no longer making enough revenue to cover costs and, unless a different way of continuing the store’s mission is found, it could close July 12.

Indeed, Judd said the store, in some ways, is more like a ministry — fueled by the desire to help parents raise their children to become productive, intelligent and well-rounded, through what he calls “intentional parenting” — than a business focused on the bottom line.

“There’s a lot of passion about what we do. It’s not about money,” said Judd, 70, who speaks with an intensity and energy of someone perhaps half his age. “We have to find a way to keep the ministry afloat. I’d love to see it continue. It’s so important for parents to be with their children, and manage their journey.”

Judd has a couple of options in mind that might keep the Painted Horse, or at least a large part of its mission, alive.

Judd makes it clear, however, that those options will not include bowing to economic pressures by stocking the latest hot electronic gadgets or licensed corporate character.

He tried that once, briefly, at the height of the Beanie Baby craze.

Their popularity, Judd said, skewed the store, as customers were only interested in getting the latest Beanie Baby and leaving, bypassing what he calls the more enriching items, such as books, puzzles, hands-on toys and educational games.

“In that brief period of time, we lost our soul. I wasn’t enjoying myself,” Judd said.

“We don’t have anything ‘hot.’ Hot usually means it doesn’t offer much value. They do all this advertising, to create demand. So, come Christmas, kids tell their parents they want that latest widget. The parents give it to them, and it doesn’t work. In a year it’s in the garage sale. That doesn’t happen here.”

Judd said the five part-time, well-informed employees of the store, most of whom have been there more than 10 years, can help match shoppers with gifts for children by talking to the shoppers. They’ll ask the age of the child, his or her interests, or what educational challenge or skill they’re looking to take on with their purchase.

Many of the Painted Horse’s customers are teachers, often spending their own money on books and other educational supplies for their classrooms.

Elizabeth DeMerchant, an educational technician from Brewer who hopes to become a full-time teacher next year, filled her arms with educational books at the store Friday, with money from her own pocket.

“There is no other store like this,” DeMerchant said of why she made the trip from Brewer to shop in Augusta. “Coming here, I can open a book up, and see what is in it. Online, I have no idea what is in it. I’ll absolutely miss it (if it closes). Many of the teachers we work with come here, too. I know people who live in (Aroostook) County who come here.”

Judd has two options in mind to keep his mission alive: a business partner or potential new owner; or some sort of nonprofit cooperative.

He said a nonprofit co-op could continue the key parts of the shop’s mission by providing items, support and conversation about being involved parents.

He envisions supporters perhaps paying an annual membership fee to be in the co-op. He said it could work with around 25 committed members. Anyone interested in taking part in either of those two options can stop by the store or e-mail Judd at [email protected]

He said the co-op could help foster the concept of intentional parenting, which is essentially parents being involved and taking responsibility for influencing their children’s education, values and practices.

He said some of today’s parents rely on technology to raise their children, which leaves them isolated and unable to communicate effectively with other people.

“I think there is a cultural breakdown, and people who come here are people attempting to find their way through it,” said Judd, who has four grown children. “Invest in your children. This is the investment of your life.”

The store opened in downtown Augusta in 1977, then moved to its current location, in a row of stores next to Shaw’s Plaza off Western Avenue.


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