In 2019, a play place opened in Arlington that could best be described as serene—not the first word that usually leaps to mind when contemplating kids’ play spaces. Instead of overstimulating colors and noises, Nook featured a neutral palette and soothing music that appealed to adults, too. Its following grew fast, and it quickly had three thriving locations: a flagship in Ballston, one in Mosaic District, and a Bethesda site, which opened in January 2020.
After that third opening, the pandemic happened. The owners, Maria Vogelei and Sy Yang, weren’t sure how to handle the business during a pandemic, when people were generally afraid to have their kids anywhere they’d come into contact with other kids and adults. And then, the “most devastating thing” happened, says Vogelei: Yang had to leave the business.
“Sy was instrumental in building the Nook brand, but like so many mothers during the pandemic, she had competing priorities and had to step away,” Vogelei said. “She had a husband who worked full time, she gave birth during the pandemic and had four kids to take care of. Her stepping away necessitated the need for me even more to find a partner who would help me continue on with our mission.”
Luckily, she did. Back when she was developing the Nook concept five years ago, Vogelei had been introduced to Sarah Robinson, who was working on a similar idea in New York.
“We never viewed each other as competitors,” Vogelei said. “We are both passionate about making space for families.”
When the pandemic hit, they exchanged war stories, and with their aligning missions, despite Robinson’s New York base, it became clear that if they joined forces, it could be their way out of the chaos created by COVID.
“The pandemic brought us to our knees,” Vogelei said. “To partner together was the best way for us to continue to make space for families to rediscover their sense of wonder when everyone was going virtual and digital. We always wanted to maintain focus on a physical space—we knew coming out of this, people would want to create physical togetherness and community.”
With this new partnership, Nook will become The Wonder, with locations in Chevy Chase and Ballston Quarter, in addition to its Tribeca location in New York. There will be a new aesthetic—Nook had a neutral palette, minimalistic look, and clean lines, but The Wonder is about immersive color experiences. The Ballston location, which opened June 28, has a pool theme, with aqua blue walls and a “pool” filled with blow-up flamingos, pool chairs, and a giant red umbrella. The Chevy Chase location will open mid-July and feature a summer camp theme, with greenery, tents, and faux campfires. The plan is to change out the themes every quarter.
Nook was known for its different take on classes, and The Wonder will pick up where it left off—think obsessions children might have, like princesses or superheroes. There will also be sensory exploration classes with different countries as themes, as well as celebrity and big-brand partnerships.
“The pandemic brought a lot of challenges, especially to me personally as a woman and business owner,” Vogelei said. “But this great partnership wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t given the challenge of the pandemic.”
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