by Cara Godlesky
At the end of Straight Wharf sits a small yet iconic toy store called The Toy Boat. At front of the shop is an antique purple captain’s steering wheel from an old ship. Children line up to turn and spin the wheel, imagining themselves sailing out on the choppy seas.
Inside the shop among the selection of classic and handcrafted toys are hundreds of beautiful glass marbles lining the counter top and glittery fairy potions stocking the shelves. The products inside the store come and go, but one aspect hasn’t changed: the shopkeeper and owner, Loren Brock, smiling warmly to all the visitors of The Toy Boat.
Celebrating 30 years of business, Brock’s toy store is much more than a means of income. She has a passion for children that is demonstrated by her thoughtful decisions of which toys to put in her shop, community events she organizes for the kids and parents to enjoy, and the delight a child’s happiness brings to her. Many years ago, Brock came to the island to work for Judi and Greg Hill during her summer breaks from college. She remembers walking down the wharf every afternoon to the old location of Sweet Inspirations, where The Toy Boat currently resides, to treat herself to some type of chocolate delight. When John and Kathy West of Sweet Inspirations decided to move the shop downtown, Brock saw the perfect location open for her chance to start a toy store on Nantucket. At the time, there wasn’t a toy shop that offered more than basic play toys to the children of the island.
“There were plenty of places to get beach buckets and games, but there wasn’t anything unique or special that you could really build on,” said Brock. “I thought that was really sad given the history of craftsmanship on Nantucket.” Brock fell in love with the “community feeling” that the wharf provided and knew that was where she wanted to have her shop. Now 30 years later, The Toy Boat remains at its original location.
From Brock’s very first days in business, she was extremely dedicated to her shop and the happiness it brought to children. When she first opened The Toy Boat, Brock lived in Vermont where she was a teacher. Brock would teach Monday through Friday, travel eight hours down to the coast and get on the late Steamship. She would work all day Saturday and Sunday, close the store down at five o’clock on Sunday, jump on the 5:30 pm ferry and drive another eight hours back to Vermont.
One day, Brock decided she needed to revamp her lifestyle. She gave up teaching and decided to make Nantucket her permanent home. After making her move, Brock realized very quickly that operating The Toy Boat was similar to teaching: Brock selects toys to sell in her store that can teach a child about different parts of the world or Nantucket culture.
“All the things I loved about teaching, I loved about the store. They were very parallel to each other,” said Brock. “It gave me the opportunity to sort of educate in a different way. I didn’t have to be in the classroom doing it, but you can touch children’s lives in many, many ways.” More than half of The Toy Boat’s products are made locally, but the store also has international folk toys. She carries items that are hand-carved, felted, and even made from glass. By having an array of cultural toys in her shop, it presents a teaching moment to expose children to international customs or the historical craftsmanship of the island.
“I want every generation to recognize that every culture on this planet has something beautiful and generous to offer, that all the toys in a particular area represent something from their history of the past,” said Brock. “The things that are mass produced may or may not do that.”
Brock also holds an annual kid’s craft event, Kid’s Create Crafts. The annual craft shows features crafts made by children that are available to purchase. The craft day aims to educate children on what it takes to gather materials, make and sell crafts, and why handmade items tend to be more expensive. This year’s Kid’s Create Crafts will be held Thursday, July 27 from 3 to 4 pm outside of The Toy Boat.
Brock may teach children, but she believes that in many ways adults can learn from how children view the world. Brock observed that kids do not necessarily hold the same expectations that adults have. She sees a “very open and receptive” quality about children when many adults do not share the same flexibility. Brock also admires children’s ability to live in the moment. “Kids could be crying one moment, but if you show them something and explain something to them, then the next minute they are happy and joyous and ready to move on,” said Brock. “I find that to be one of the most wonderful aspects of the day.”
Brock’s allows children to fully live in the moment with her dazzling and creative store. That creativity is extended to the exterior of the shop with her fairy garden. In front of The Toy Boat is a small garden with flowers, painted rocks and shells, and little, handmade homes meant for fairies.
“When I was a little girl my grandma taught me how to make fairy houses, and fairies out of flowers,” said Brock. “When I started The Toy Boat and had a little garden outside that was in need of something, we started planting flowers.
Every year [the fairy garden] grows and changes, whether I’m here or closed.” The fairy garden is a whimsical destination for children to use their imagination. They can search for all the trap doors around the shop and garden, leave letters in the fairy mailbox, and add their own creations for the fairies to enjoy.
“The things that go on the exterior of our building are very important to me,” said Brock. “I think it’s really important for people to have a destination to visit that doesn’t cost them anything. It’s not about anything other than the experience. There’s always something different.”
But The Toy Boat hasn’t always had shining, happy days. The 1991 No Name Storm, later dubbed the “Perfect Storm,” left The Toy Boat in shambles. Brock was in her first few years of business when the storm came out of nowhere, leaving her with five feet of water on the exterior of her shop and a four-foot waterline inside.
The Straight Wharf was much more open than it is today, and the fury of the storm sent water cascading onto the docks and wharf. The flooding started, and Brock hurriedly tried to protect her shop’s inventory by moving products off of the ground and her valuables into her car.
Brock parked her car behind the old electricity building and tried to continue to pack up, but the Coast Guard told her she must evacuate. She went back to The Toy Boat to grab her pet cat, who was sitting in the window watching the waves crash ashore.
The water rose so quickly that the water swallowed Brock’s car and the harbormaster had to tie it to a telephone poll to prevent it from washing away. Brock was standing in the middle of a hurricane with no car, a flooding shop, and a cat under her rain jacket.
She trudged through knee-level water up to India Street to Sweet Inspirations, where the Wests opened their doors for her. Brock and her cat eventually made it home.
With The Toy Boat damaged and in need of costly repairs, many suggested she give up her dream and return to teaching. However, Brock didn’t share that idea.
“I was determined that this was just the opportunity to change [the shop] and to make it more what I wanted to be, more about handmade things, more about boats, that could perhaps float in the next storm, sort a tongue in cheek,” said Brock.
Brock looks at this disaster, and challenges in general, as a ways to revise situations and turn them into something better. “I think the key is getting through it, because at the time you can’t really see past it. Certainly when I was knee-deep in water, I didn’t have the sense I would be here for 30 years,” said Brock. “But it gives you an opportunity and stand on the edge and say, ‘Which way do I want to go?’ because there’s no wrong answer.”
Brock knows she may face turmoil and unwanted commotion but she gains happiness through the joy of the children she sees in her shop. “On the worst days and some little child comes running in and throws their arms around you, it’s pretty hard to be sad,” Brock said. “No matter how bad things are, it’s pretty hard to be sad.”
Brock’s way of looking at obstacles is something every one of us could try to incorporate into our lives. If we face a time of loss, try to find the silver linings. Without the bumps, we can’t feel the smooth flow of life.
“The clouds just part and that gorgeous ray of sunshine comes shining through and it’s the most beautiful ray you’ve ever seen and there’s tomorrow. I have no problem with the dark, grey, rainy days. That’s just part of it all. You gotta do it,” said Brock.
Loren Brock is an inspiration to the children and island community. She aims to “live a life that was of some value of the community” and she has done just that. She provides joy and happy memories to every one she interacts with. Her passion for the children of Nantucket and her shop is something truly beautiful and warming to all.
“I couldn’t even imagine my life without children in it, of all ages. There is very little not to love about them,” said Brock. “Still to this day, my greatest joys of The Toy Boat are the kids coming in, and we speak the same language, we really do. I understand them.”