21 years ago, two Whitefish moms opened a small toy store, 20 feet by 20 feet, no bigger than two shipping containers. They were starting small. Neither of them had ever expected to get into the toy business. Now they’ve moved into a much bigger spaces, managing large Imagination Station locations in both downtown Whitefish and Kalispell. “Back then, we had no idea what we were doing,” said Mary Wirbrod, one of the co-founders, whose children were 5 and 7 when the doors to Imagination Station Whitefish first opened.
Mary and the other founder, Denise Magstadt, were simply fed up with the fact that neither their hometown nor the surrounding towns had a toy store. So Mary, who was an administrator the Whitefish Montessori School, and Denise, who ran a childcare program, decided to open one of their own. “It wasn’t as hard as we thought,” said Mary. “We had a lot of people that supported us, there was two of us to split the work, and we’re both highly organized. We also try to work less than 40 hours a week, and that keeps us fresh and happy.” Since the beginning, they’ve stocked classic toys—think Lincoln Logs and Jack-in-the-Box—but they’ve also seen trends come and go. “Oh, I remember the Beanie Babie fad,” Mary said with a smile.
Imagination Station sells dolls and they sell swords, but for the most part, they try not to sell toys that are made for only girls or boys. Mary grew up in the 1950s, when she says girls were supposed to play house with dolls. She preferred to make houses—she and her friends would toss their toys aside and construct little homes from fabric and any other stray materials they could find. Today, she can’t pick a favorite toy in her store.
Ask her, and her eyes will scan around the displays, lighting up over and over and over again. It’s clear that she and Denise have filled the story with merchandise that makes them happy, with toys that they believe will bring other people joy, too. “Our toys are for people from birth to forever. I want kids and adults to have fun in here,” Mary said. “We have fun, too. We pack the toys in.” That’s one key to their business success.
During the first years with a shop in Whitefish, Mary and Denise kept their eyes on Kalispell. They watched many a toyshop come and go. Mary remembers one that didn’t stock enough merchandise, and one stocked too many. Imagination Station is the Goldilocks the Kalispell toy market was looking for.
“When we bought the building in Kalispell, the downtown was coming back,” said Mary of the old butcher’s stop they converted into their second location in 2001. “We bought it with faith.” And their business has blossomed.
Their customers love the store, too—it’s a mainstay for locals, but tourists in particular find Imagination Station magical. “Visitors from Dallas and Calgary say they don’t have anything like this,” Mary said. It’s harder for big stores in areas with more corporate influence to stay locally-owned and unique, like Imagination Station is. “Small stores can’t stay alive there,” Mary said. But they can in Kalispell. And they do.
Kalispell is the kind of supportive, creative, and cheery kind of place where a homegrown toy store like Imagination Station can flourish and remain as a town staple.