Catching up with Imagination Station Toys.
By Mary Jo Gardner. Photo by Mandy Mohler of Field Guide Designs.
When Mary Witbrod came to Whitefish from Virginia in 1983 she knew she would stay. “This area spoke home to me more than anywhere else I’d ever been. It reminds me of where I lived in Germany.”
Denise Magstadt was born and raised in Helena and moved here in 1991 after school in Bozeman. “We came for one ski season and we didn’t leave.”
They became acquainted when Mary began taking her children over to Denise’s childcare. As it turned out, their sons and daughters were almost the same age. Their friendship developed and one day Denise declared the fateful words, “This town needs a toy shop.” She explains, “We really didn’t know what we were doing, so we started very small – a 20 by 20-foot room.” They opened the compact store in Whitefish in 1995. Within four or five months, they knew it was going to work and the business grew.
One reason for their relatively instant success was a group of parents that wanted them to succeed. These were families who took their children to Denise’s childcare business, and others who knew Mary from her administrative position at Whitefish Montessori.
Splitting the work duties and time commitment of running the new business between the two owners was also essential. Denise’s degree is in child development and she had always wanted to have a toy store, but that was difficult to do on her own with a family. The partnership and job share has worked well for them. It gives them time to travel, to play in the rivers and lakes in the summer, and to enjoy the snow in the winter.
Imagination Station has now expanded to two larger stores, one in Whitefish and one in Kalispell, but that first small shop opened as the Birthday Store. Staying true to their roots, about 300 birthday cards are sent out every month to their birthday registry list. Who doesn’t love to get a birthday card in the mail? The kids understandably get very excited to spend their $5 coupon that’s included.
The store will also help children compile a birthday or holiday list so that someone from out of the area can call to check what’s on the list. The item is wrapped and the child’s parent is called to come and pick it up. No shipping costs necessary.
“It’s awesome that customers are so excited about our products,” Denise shares. “Recently a visitor from Dallas stated, ‘Wow! This is the best toy store we’ve ever been in.’ We often hear that, and that’s an inspiration in itself.”
Most of the items people see in Imagination Station aren’t in the mass market. The store specializes in classic or hard-to-find toys and games, as well as the trendier items. It’s a great hands-on place where one can actually get to touch and get a good look at products. There is a lot of diversity in the toys, games, books, and activities – the shop carries items from at least 400 different sources.
As it is a specialty toy store, one might assume the items will be quite expensive, but Mary and Denise strive to keep their prices affordable. “It’s nice to hear customers remark, ‘You’ve got some really good prices here,’” Mary smiles.
There is quite a variety of customers. Along with the expected youthful customer base, retired folks come in for jigsaw puzzles, and young adults in their 20s and 30s come in for board games. After 22 years in business, they are also starting to get the next generation of shoppers.
The Kalispell store, which opened in October of 2001, has a Teachers’ Paradise upstairs that offers many items like workbooks, bulletin board sets, trims, posters, nameplates, stickers, and planning books for teachers in public schools, private schools, or at home schools (including lots of things to trick students into learning!). If you’re an educator, ask Mary or Denise about the store discounts that they offer.
Mary, Denise, and their employees take pride in their customer care and service. There is strong employee loyalty, so Denise and Mary feel good about how the store is run when they’re not there. “I love our employees!” Mary says.
Reading their reviews online, you can tell customers have taken note. One story explains how an employee recognized the customer and her sons. They pulled the mom aside discretely to let her know that her father-in-law had already purchased the toy figures that her sons were begging for so that they didn’t end up duplicating gifts. She ends her review, “They are not only knowledgeable about the toys they carry; they know and care about their customers. All the more reason to shop small and local.”
Denise and Mary participate in as many local community events as possible. They get donation requests two or three times a week at both stores. Mary notes there’s a lot of need in this valley, and they try to give back whenever they can. They offer a 10% discount for items purchased for charity.
Thanksgiving through Christmas there are weekly sales with a featured item like Breyer horses, model trains, etc. There is an after-Christmas sale too. Free gift-wrapping is offered all year round.
When asked how they chose the name of the shop, Denise said they got some help from a thesaurus. I looked up Imagination and these were some of the words on the page: creativeness, originality, inventiveness, resourcefulness, fancifulness, insight, inspiration, make-believe, pretend, to play with one’s thoughts, and build castles in the air. Station: stopping place. The spirit of the shop is truly captured in the name.
Imagination Station has the classic toys you loved as a child, plus new unique items that inspire creativity. Stop in to see the magic for yourself at 132 Main Street in Kalispell, and 221 Central Avenue in Whitefish, or call 406.862.5668. Open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 am to 6:00 pm, and Sundays
About the Author: Mary Jo Gardner is a fifth-generation Flathead Valley resident. Recently retired after almost 40 years of teaching mainly primary grades, she’s seen her fair share of toys.