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Former employees André and Devon Boulay take ownership of downtown icon A2Z Science & Learning



Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Florence resident André Boulay remembers trips to Northampton when he was around 7 from his Blandford home — they invariably involved stops at a place he adored, A2Z Science & Learning Store in Thornes Marketplace.

Extra special were the times he’d march into the store clutching a postcard he’d received in the mail telling him a free gift awaited in honor of his birthday. One time, he chose a holographic turtle sticker and he can still remember exactly where he placed it on his bedroom wall.

These are among the memories Boulay, 29, carries with him as he and his wife, Devon Boulay, 30, take over as new owners of the 28-year-old downtown retail anchor at 57 King St. On Tuesday, the Boulays sat with Jack and Priscilla Finn, who founded the store in 1987, spending about 45 minutes signing paperwork finalizing a deal that has been in the works for about two years.

To outsiders, the store will appear unchanged, with the Finns staying on as employees. The Boulays, meanwhile, both former employees of the store, say they plan to operate the store much as the Finns have all these years.

“Everything that A2Z is, is exactly what we want it to be,” said André Boulay. “It’s a safe place and it’s a good place to play and be a kid.”

The Finns say they feel lucky to have found people they trust implicitly to take over their beloved store.

“The amazing thing is that André and Devon were really interested. They’re kind of young to be taking this on. We feel very fortunate to find young people who could have another 30 years of ownership,” said Jack Finn at the store Wednesday, the day after he went from being A2Z owner to A2Z employee.

“I can’t imagine anybody better,” said Finn, a Northampton native. “The skill sets they have are tremendous.”

Neither the Boulays nor the Finns would disclose the sale price of the business. The Finns, who own the building, a former convenience store to which they added living quarters in the back, will continue to live there.

This means that while the Boulays are now the employers of the Finns, the Finns are also their landlords. And everybody’s fine with that.

“They need to set the course,” said Jack Finn.

“They’re on our payroll and we’re cutting them a check,” said André Boulay.

“We’ve had a long time to think about it,” said Priscilla Finn. “We learned a long time ago, somebody has to be the boss.”

“I think we all feel extremely lucky,” said Jack Finn.

“I think both sides would definitely say lucky, but grateful,” said André Boulay.

A deal in the works

Jack and Priscilla Finn, who are 66 and 65 respectively, said they began thinking about selling the store after Priscilla’s parents died, her mother in 2012 and her father in November of 2013.

Priscilla Finn said she and her husband realized then that her parents had fulfilling and healthy lives between the ages of 65 and 75, but after that, things became more difficult.

“We just said, all we’ve done is work,” said Priscilla Finn. They decided the time had come to work less and relax more, and they set about finding someone who might care for their store as much as they do.

The Finns plan to work in the store for 25 hours a week each, offering them a great deal more free time than did their former 60-hour work weeks.

Settling on André and Devon Boulay, they said, “was pretty organic.”

After being a customer at the store as a child, André attended the yo-yo school Finn ran at the store while in high school. It was there that he discovered his passion for yo-yoing, which he refers to as “a lifestyle.” He began working there while he was a student at the University of Massachusetts in 2001 and continued until 2008.

He met his wife when they were both UMass students, and introduced her to his passion for yo-yos and love of games and toys. She, too, began working at A2Z, where she worked from 2005 to 2013 when she left after the birth of their son, Pierce.

The two couples’ ideas about the mission of the store are in sync.

With a part- and full-time staff of about 17 workers, the store sells and expansive inventory of educationally based toys and games and operates a popular free yo-yo school at the store three days a week.

In an interview in a back office at the store, where a cat occupied one desk chair and Pierce played on the floor with toys, Priscilla Finn said the mission of the store is to “encourage, enrich, and uplift children using the wonder of science and learning.”

“I love toys and I love games,” said André.

“And we all love kids,” added Priscilla.

As employers, the Finns said they’ve always been committed to offering a fair wage and perks that include flex time, retirement benefits and insurance. The Boulays say they, too, are committed to that type of workplace.

“I learned managerial skills and taking care of employees from a great example,” André Boulay said, pointing his thumb at his new landlords.

“The idea is trying to make a really great work machine,” he said. “A team that can play well and think smart.”

Devon Boulay expects the transition will be smooth in part due to how recently she was a store employee and the fact that her husband, too, is a known quantity.

“We have a history with a lot of people here,” she said. “It’s not like we are strangers.”

Meanwhile, in the far-flung yo-yo world, André Boulay is something of a celebrity.

He is a yo-yo master, organizes and runs yo-yo contests around the world and designed a yo-yo called Dark Magic that is among the most popular yo-yos for serious yo-yoers. He also has taught hundreds of people to yo-yo both in person and through his online tutorial videos that are ubiquitous on YouTube. For many years he worked for the Georgia-based company Yo-Yo Jam, until he and Devon started their own business shortly after they married in 2008.

He is founder and owner of a thriving online business, YoYoExpert.com, which has five employees and operates in quarters in the Eastworks factory building in Easthampton.

Boulay knows it will be a challenge to run two businesses, but in some ways, he said, he’s been preparing for this for a year, ever since the Finns announced to store staff that a deal had been struck.

He said he’s been building up a workforce at YoYoExpert who are trained and confident enough to keep things running smoothly when he’s not around. He plans to be at A2Z daily for the near future.

Jack Finn said he looks forward to seeing what the Boulays will do with the store. “A2Z has been a successful store but I think there’s a lot of potential we didn’t reach and I’m anxious to see what they’ll do,” he said.

André Boulay said he’s been thinking of reviving some of the things the store did in the past but let go of over the years — like sending birthday postcards out to children giving them a free toy.

A lot of great memories can be made that way, he knows from experience.

Disclosure: A family member of Laurie Loisel is a part-time employee at the store but has no ownership stake.

Laurie Loisel can be reached at lloisel@gazettenet.com.




 


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