After two decades of selling toys and creating community in Fells Point for families and caregivers, aMuse Toys, one of the last specialty toy stores in Baltimore, is closing its doors.
The trove of puzzles, puppets and games will shut down Thursday as Claudia Towles, who owns the store with her husband, Tom Towles, makes a bid for Baltimore City Council.
“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. aMuse is a special place,” Claudia Towles said.
In making the announcement Friday, Towles said the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for the store, making finances and daily operations difficult.
“We are dealing with an unprecedented labor shortage, at least in my lifetime and I’ve been a retailer for half of my life basically, and I’ve never experienced this,” Towles said.
Added to this is what Towles described as a “broken supply chain” that has been an immense hurdle for her business.
Nationwide delays on getting products from producers have left small businesses like aMuse Toys, which often rely on being able to provide specialized and speedy orders to customers, suffering. The National Federation of Independent Business reported earlier this month that half of U.S. small businesses are suffering significant financial damage because of supply chain issues.
Those financial difficulties were compounded by Towles’ frustration with how little support she felt small businesses receive from Baltimore City government.
“The apathy that we have from city leadership that is chronic and normalized gives way to very few opportunities to see us shifting in a way that facilitates our sustainability, our growth, the recruitment of other businesses to our area,” Towles said.
Her frustrations culminated in Towles’ decision to close aMuse Toys and run for City Council in the 2024 Democratic primary.
“All of this, the decision to close the store, to run for City Council, is a reflection of my family and my unique connection to this very special place that we treasure and to the people that we love, the small business community that exists here that I want to ensure that I can support in an effective way moving forward,” Towles said.
While Towles and her husband considered selling the store, the difficulty of finding a buyer in the current financial climate made them decide to close instead, a choice Towles said has been emotional.
They opened aMuse Toys in the early 2000s when they were young parents in Fells Point searching for a sense of community. The couple mortgaged their home to open the shop, a choice which Towles described as “absolutely transformative.”
“I’ve seen families come through and now there are kids who aren’t kids anymore, they’re adults, that’s what 20 years will do,” Towles said.
Over the years, the store has been a go-to place for holiday presents, glittering toys and unique gifts, but Towles said it’s also become a hub for parents, caregivers and Baltimore school staff looking for learning tools and advice about how to help children navigate the complexities of growing up.
“We like to say at aMuse that we celebrate childhood milestones, but we also help meet childhood challenges, and there are so many, like emotional and social and mental health. All of that was crafted in that little space,” Towles said. “Those are my favorite memories, when something clicked for a parent or for a family member or for a caregiver ... those are the memories that make this hard.”
Alex Rojas, Towles’ niece, grew up in the store, helping out with sidewalk sales as a kid, taking her first job in the store as a teenager and continuing to work on its social media team to this day. For Rojas, the closing of aMuse is a goodbye to the store that defined her childhood.
“It is definitely sad. It’s kind of like the end of an era,” Rojas said.