Playtown opens for city’s littlest residents

Last Thursday afternoon, Ethan Boswell busily hammered away, wearing a fluorescent orange construction vest. Nearby, Nathanial Mildener methodically filled his shopping cart. The boys are 4 years old and 15 months respectively and were going about their days in a miniature town, perfect for people of shorter stature.

Gabby Schiller opened Oak Harbor Playtown on Jan. 4, and the business has already surpassed 1,000 visits, she said. She is a Navy spouse and mother of three children under the age of 12.

“I got tired of waiting for a place like this,” Schiller said.

Playtown, located on Northeast Midway Boulevard, includes a little grocery store, doctor’s office, police station, gym, soda shop and library. Upstairs, there are three bounce houses.

“He thinks this is his,” Ethan Boswell’s mother Corin Boswell said, after he changed from a construction outfit into a doctor’s lab coat. “It’s his size.”

The family has been to Playtown nearly 10 times since it opened earlier this month. She said it provides a large and imaginative space to play when the weather isn’t great and a chance to “get out of the living room.” The coffee that’s available on-site also keeps her coming back, she said with a laugh.

Schiller describes the business as “drop in, not drop off,” meaning caregivers are required to stay with and keep an eye on the children they bring.

To make their stay more enjoyable, Schiller teamed up with Espresso Self Catering owner Megan Donaldson.

Donaldson had been catering local events since last March, but the partnership with Schiller has allowed her to run her first brick-and-mortar setup. Those who rent Playtown’s space may also enlist Donaldson’s services for unlimited coffee and Italian sodas at parties.

Schiller performed her market research by reaching out to local Whidbey Facebook groups explaining her idea and offering people a chance to participate. She received more than 400 responses, she said.

The two main priorities she gleaned from the process were cleanliness and caffeine.

There’s also free wifi, but Schiller encourages everyone to “unplug and play.” A room is set aside for quiet time or breastfeeding, complete with glider chairs.

Schiller had been in the medical field for years before leaving because of her frustration with what she saw as an inability to help people on a more personal level. After putting in her notice at her old job, she quickly set her sights on creating a clean and safe place for young children to play.

Her husband, who is currently deployed, has a business degree but Schiller herself had little experience. She joined the SCORE business mentorship program, which offers free mentoring and education from retired business executives, and buried herself in research. The website became one of her most-visited sites, she said with a laugh.

Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times                                Nathanial Mildener, 15 months, stays busy at Oak Harbor Playtown.

Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times Nathanial Mildener, 15 months, stays busy at Oak Harbor Playtown.

The inspiration for the tiny town concept came after going to a similar establishment while visiting relatives out of state, she said.

“I immediately thought, ‘Oak Harbor needs this,’” Schiller said. “We need it. I’m going to do it.”

She signed the lease on the Midway space on Dec. 13. She and a contractor hand-made and painted each little storefront, with rounded and sanded edges. Each piece of the tiny town is made for small children, but the roofs are open to allow grownups to join the fun without having to hunch.

Parents are also invited to join $5 regularly held classes at Playtown, such as mommy and me yoga and art . Members may attend three free classes.

The daily rate at Playtown is $10 for the first child and $9 for each additional kid. After 2 p.m., the rate is $5 per child. Members may visit as often as they’d like for $40 a month for one child, $50 for two and $60 for three or more.

The whole space may be reserved for parties and events as well.

Playtown is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12-5 p.m. on Sundays, unless it’s closed for a party.

The experience has been a bit of a whirlwind, Schiller said.

Her new business came together so quickly, the flooring wasn’t even installed until the night before opening day, Schiller said.

“But we did it,” she said.