After more than 30 years, three owners, four locations and countless children browsing the aisles, Explorations Toy Store in Duluth is closing its doors for good.
Ken Weyenberg, 57, of Duluth owns the store at 2322 Mountain Shadow Drive with his wife, Judy. The store focuses on educational and nonviolent toys.
Weyenberg cites competition from online retailers as the main reason for the closure.
The Weyenbergs bought and reopened Explorations in March 2006 after owners Erick and Mary Beth Kjolhaug had closed the store about four months earlier.
Ken Weyenberg had been in the grocery industry for about 30 years, including six years managing the Cub Foods store in Duluth, and had always wanted to own his own retail business, but the right opportunity hadn't come up until Explorations, he said.
The Kjolhaugs, in turn, had bought the store from original owner Stephanie Heilig, moving it half a block in 1996 to its longtime downtown location in the Holiday Center. Heilig first opened the store in the Duluth skywalk in the early 1980s with help from her husband, Jim, and her father, Ed Kallio.
"We found a hole in the local market for good-quality educational toys and teaching materials," Heilig told the News Tribune in 2006. Heilig retired in 2016 as principal of Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in Duluth.
Both Heilig and the Kjolhaugs helped the Weyenbergs reopen the downtown store back in 2006, while Heilig worked at the store during the holidays, Weyenberg said.
Weyenberg moved the store to the Village Square shopping center in 2014 from its Holiday Center location at 201 W. Superior St. At the time, Weyenberg said declining sales, insufficient parking and an ongoing problem of people loitering outside near his store contributed to the decision to leave downtown.
When it came time to move up the hill, Erick Kjolhaug again helped the Weyenbergs set up at Village Square.
"There's been a really great connection from previous owners and a positive relationship there," Weyenberg said.
The Village Square store, which opened eight years to the day after the Weyenbergs reopened the downtown Explorations, is similar in size to the old downtown store, but higher ceilings and more light give the impression of a larger space, Weyenberg said. In addition, while parking was constantly a challenge downtown, customers can practically park in front of the Village Square store's front door, Weyenberg said.
"It was a really good move for the business" at the time, Weyenberg said. "Sales ended up significantly up for those first couple years that we were here."
As time went on, however, it became clear that online retail was a force to be reckoned with.
"Online shopping - that's the majority of our sales loss over the last two or three years," Weyenberg said. "And our customers tell us every day, 'I bought this online. I wish I'd have known you had it here.'"
Weyenberg said that Explorations also used to sell a lot of specialty products that were available only at his store, and now those products are more widely available.
"The piece of the pie becomes smaller and smaller as times goes on," he said.
Weyenberg also works as a bus driver for Voyageur Bus Co. and Arrowhead Transit, and has been donating his time to the store. He previously worked exclusively at Explorations but said that a couple of years ago the family realized that the store would no longer support his salary. Judy Weyenberg is a dietician at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth.
The couple's four children, once frequent customers, grew up working in the store, which the family says helped shape who they are, and they've always hoped to give other kids a chance to discover and learn about what interests them.
Laura Weyenberg, 21, and her twin sister, Rachel, still work at Explorations in addition to building their own careers. Before that, the Weyenbergs' sons, Joel, 28, and Jack, 24, worked shifts at the store.
Jack Weyenberg built a large Ferris wheel made from a K'Nex building set about six years ago, which sits in the store's window. Jack recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Laura was behind the toy store's counter on Wednesday afternoon. She said working at the store kept her close to her family while preparing her for a career serving clients and customers.
"It's honestly helped me as a person to grow in the workforce, to be more of a people person," said Laura, who also works as a hairstylist at Ulta in Duluth. "It helps me with my customer skills, too."
The store has enough stock to stay open into February, Ken Weyenberg said. After that, he'll start selling off store fixtures and wind down operations. No one has been in touch to inquire about purchasing the store and keeping it open, he said.
Would Weyenberg entertain such an offer?
"Absolutely, but I might talk them out of it," he said. "Just because of the nature of retail nowadays. You know, maybe (it would work) on a different scale - about half of this, maybe?"
The store in the Village Square shopping center currently is selling its remaining stock at 15 percent off. The store is open, for now, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
"Retail is pretty much in my blood," Weyenberg said. "We're gonna miss this a lot."