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Washington Square closes door on Learning Palace

Mall terminates store's lease prior to holiday season


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Learning Palace manager Sherri McBride pulls toys off the shelves at her Washington Square store, which closed this week. The store had only a few months to go on its 15 month lease.To hear Mike Farris tell it, Washington Square mall practically begged him to open a store there less than a year ago.

Now, mall management is kicking the store out.

Farris is the owner of Learning Palace — a Portland-based toy store chain that specializes in educational toys for children. The store is a favorite among teachers and home-schooled families, who are able to pick up everything from stickers to science equipment to models of dinosaurs and the solar system at its six Oregon and Washington stores.

But this week, the store closed its short-lived location at Washington Square mall, after the mall terminated the company’s lease early.

Farris said he received a letter two weeks ago, telling him he had until Oct. 25 to close the store and vacate the mall.

“It was a big shock, with the holiday season right around the corner,” Farris said. “They pushed so hard for us to open.”

Successful history

Farris said Learning Palace opened up a small kiosk at the mall during the holiday shopping season in 2012, which proved so popular the mall approached the company in 2013 to move into a space near JCPenny, across from the children’s play area.

“We had never been in a mall before, and we were really excited,” Farris said. “They said that they had a couple of other tenants in mind, but wanted us because we had been there (in the kiosk) and were good tenants.”

The store signed a 15-month lease, Farris said, to ensure it would be open for the upcoming holiday shopping season.

“The 2013 holiday season was phenomenal for us, we did extremely well,” Farris said. “We had barely opened and in mid-November were doing really, really well.”

The store struggled during the first half of 2014.

Farris said things would turn around come November. After two holiday seasons in the mall — one in a kiosk and another as a permanent tenant — he knew that holiday figures were going to put them back on top.

“In November and December, the sales were insane,” Farris said. “It was just as good a location as the ones we have that had been around for years, and it was less than half the size. We knew that once November and December came, we’d make up for everything and more.”

Farris said employees with the mall were following orders handed down from the mall’s parent company, Macerich, which is based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Employees said that low sales were the reason for the closure, Farris said.

The store’s lease doesn’t officially end until January, Farris said.

“They couldn’t wait until then, they had to say the end of October, knowing that we were waiting for November and December,” he said.

‘Everything is changing’

The mall is perfectly within its rights to break the lease early, Farris said.

What bothers him, he said is the way the mall chose to inform him that his lease would not be renewed.

“I understand if they want to terminate the lease when it’s up, but we need these next two months,” Farris said. “They couldn’t even give me the courtesy of a phone call? They had to send a letter?”

It’s not the first time the mall has been criticized for the way it ousts tenants.

In 2013, the mall came under fire after it removed Excalibur Cutlery & Gifts.

The mall rented out the space to a new tenant two months before informing Excalibur — one of the oldest tenants in the mall — that it would be closing after 30 years in business.

The sudden closure of the Washington Square store forced the company out of business, according to the company’s owner John Jost.

Officials at Washington Square said they can’t discuss leasing agreements with the media, but Rebecca Lesley, a spokeswoman for the mall, said Washington Square was looking to find the right fit of stores for shoppers to enjoy.

“Learning Palace was part of our specialty leasing program, which allows us to bring in different concepts under short-term leases,” she said. “We are always focused on how we can enhance the center and bring new energy to our merchandise mix.”

Farris said that, unlike Excalibur, the closure of the Washington Square Learning Palace won’t end his business, but it will have a major impact.

“It’s going to hurt — it’s devastating,” Farris said. “We had just opened that store, but it is something that we have been counting on. We’ll have to make some major adjustments and rethink a lot of things. It hurts, but we’ll have to deal with it.”

The store has laid off its six part-time employees. The store’s manager, Sherri McBride has been with the company for 10 years and took a temporary position with its Beaverton location. She said the retail environment has changed dramatically since she started with the company.

“Everything is changing,” she said. “That’s how things go, especially if you are a big corporation, like the mall. You have no feel for what’s going on with the little guy — you just need anchors to stay in business to keep your property going. That’s business. Malls have changed so much.”

The nearest Learning Palace location is in Beaverton at 3861 S.W. 117th Ave.

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