April 09, 2020

One of Santa’s Helpers Ellsworth man sets up own North Pole, making toys by hand and spreading holiday spirit

Ed Parent may look a bit like Santa Claus, and the two are in similar lines of work, but the joyful toy maker and salesman claims he’s merely one of Saint Nick’s dutiful elves. The burly man with a long gray beard, rosy cheeks and spectacles that rest on the tip of his nose chuckles at the thought of young children – eager to meet their hero from the North Pole – mistaking him for Santa Claus. It’s an understandable mistake, as Parent is known to dress in red sweaters while tending to his toyshop crammed with handmade wooden toys.

“I tell them I’m an elf,” Parent said of the wide-eyed children who enter his store. “I tell them that Santa comes in here all the time, but he comes in a disguise and that he could be either a man or a woman.”

Parent and his wife, Bonny, have operated their Toymaker Shop on busy U.S. Route 1A for nearly 17 years. The red building easily could pass for Santa’s workshop, with its atmosphere of youthful enthusiasm and the red-and-white-checkered curtains gracing the windows. And like a modern sleigh, a red and white 1961 Chevrolet Impala sits outside the shop – a “conversation piece” that Parent said attracts many a carload of potential buyers.

The quaint store is a far cry from Parent’s previous line of work, serving 25 years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and chemical weapons instructor. Though he spent nearly half of his life in the military, Parent said his current profession as a toy maker and seller nearly evaporates all of his military tendencies.

“I’m thinking Army all the time,” Parent said recently. “But I don’t do that here because toys and war … they don’t really mix.”

Those thoughts led the Parents to establish a firm rule about what kind of toys are acceptable in their shop: They will not sell any toy or replica weapons. “Guns are not a toy,” Parent said. “There is no weaponry here.”

What the Parents do sell is a wide assortment of handmade toys fashioned by craftspeople, including the Parents, from Waldoboro to Fort Kent. Shelf upon shelf is crowded with miniature furniture for dollhouses, coin banks, dolls and antique-style rocking horses. The store also boasts educational toys such as “Bags of Imagination,” which are filled with odd pieces of wood to spark children’s creativity.

The store exudes it’s own atmosphere. Space heaters battle cool drafts that make their way through walls of the old structure. Low ceilings and worn floorboards provide the toyshop with a worn-yet-authentic touch, and a pot full of warm apple cider greets customers at the door.

The unique personality of the toyshop isn’t lost on Parent. “The building has the charisma of a little toy-maker shop,” Parent said. “You definitely wouldn’t be able to sell brand-new televisions right here.”

The store also is rife with memorabilia from nearly 17 years of business. Photos of children from all over the world playing with the handmade toys grace virtually every corner. The ceiling tiles are marked by 86 of what the Parents call their “ceiling fans” – 8-inch-by-10-inch glossy photos of frequent customers from around the world.

Running the toy store, Parent said, has been a joy, having spent a few years after military life looking for something rewarding to do with his time.

“Well, it happened that, being retired from the Army, that I didn’t really find an occupation that was comfortable,” Parent said. “When I came home, I felt that there wasn’t anything that I wanted to stay with.”

So Parent, who learned some woodworking from his father but hadn’t made wooden toys since he was in high school, decided to enter the craft show and flea market circuit. For the next four years the Parents made their way across the country, attending about 35 shows and conventions per year.

After those years, Parent said, he and Bonny decided to open the toyshop by drawing on the many creative toys fashioned by handymen across the state. “I just don’t have any problems having this kind of work,” Parent said. “It’s just not a stressful job.”

Part of the comfort with selling and making toys comes from working with craftspeople across the state. “It does help to be an artist yourself,” Parent said. “I find it rewarding to work with other artists. But working with somebody who is selling somebody else’s product … they’re just in it for profit.”

The Parents say the most rewarding part of their business is watching children grow into adults and bring their own children to the store. “Oh my goodness gracious, they come back and show us their grandchildren,” Parent said of their once-young customers. “It makes us feel young, doesn’t it?” Parent asked his wife with a wink.

Regardless of how young or old their repeat customers make them feel, Parent said the loyalty of their customers is what has kept his business going for nearly 20 years. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be here, so we must be doing something right.”

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