From toys to masks: Former A2Z owners are making a different product these days

  • Jack Finn on the production line for the face masks, which he jokingly calls “Priscilla’s sweat shop.” PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Nancy Filkoski, a clerk at Big Y in Northampton, with one of the Finns’ face masks. Priscilla Finn calls her “a dedicated and wonderful essential worker.” PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Mark and Jane Truehart of Easthampton. Priscilla Finn says Jane, a physical therapist, likes to wear the lips on her face mask “because her patients can see her smile.” PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Priscilla Finn models one of her masks. She and her husband estimate they’ve made over 500 face masks since this summer. PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Devon Boulay, co-owner of A2Z Science & Learning Center, models a feline-themed face mask made by the Finns. PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Some of the wide variety of face masks at the Finns’ South Hadley home. PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

  • Jim and Helen Wick, two of the many residents at Loomis Village in South Hadley who now wear face masks designed and made by the Finns. PHOTO COURTESY PRISCILLA FINN

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2021

For almost 30 years, Jack and Priscilla Finn were a key part of Northampton’s downtown scene: They were the founders and owners of A2Z Science & Learning Center, the educational toy store with a science bent that was a favorite with customers near and far (comedian Paula Poundstone was known to pick up a few items there when she was performing in town).

Jack was also active with the Northampton Education Foundation, and the yo-yo classes he organized at A2Z became a huge draw as well, helping teach hundreds of kids how to use the toys and bringing talented yo-yo masters to the store; he also created a team that put on regular yo-yo shows, including at First Night Northampton.

The Finns sold their store five years ago to longtime employees André and Devon Boulay and spent time in recent years traveling and doing other things their busy schedule previously hadn’t allowed. But now they’ve turned to a new community-minded project: making free face masks.

Since this summer, Priscilla Finn estimates she and her husband have made well over 500 washable face masks at their home for family, friends, and a whole host of other people, including residents and staff at Loomis Village in South Hadley. The couple moved to the retirement community from Northampton in October, to be closer to two family members who had moved to Loomis Village from Oregon.

“We had time to do this, and it just seemed like something everyone could benefit from, especially residents and staff at Loomis,” said Priscilla. “We make them available for free — it’s just a way to do something for the community.”

The effort started back in summer, she noted, when shortages of masks were being reported around the country and in the state. “We wanted to help, and with the quarantining, we had time on our hands.”

In keeping with their background in selling games and toys, the Finns have also brought an element of fun to their new activity, making a number of jokey masks along with more straightforward ones. Some feature a range of mustaches and others pairs of lips, in the form of stickers that are ironed onto the cotton masks.

The assembly line is set up in their apartment: Priscilla handles the sewing, while Jack does the assembling, folding and cutting of the fabrics and other materials they use.

“I call it Priscilla’s sweat shop,” Jack said with a laugh.

“There are about 40 steps to it,” added Priscilla, noting that the cotton fabric they use needs to be washed, cut and stitched in different ways, and a wire band attached to the section of the mask that goes around the nose; the masks have a couple of different layers and a paper filter sewn in as well.

Priscilla notes that the operation would have been much more difficult without the help of a friend, Debra Franklin of Florence, a quilter who donated much of the fabrics they use. That material comes in a wide array of colors and patterns, including one that shows a small army of white, silhouetted cats prancing amid a background of paw prints.

Kerri Baldwin of Goshen, a longtime bookkeeper who also works at A2Z, has in turn created the mustache and lip iron-on additions to the masks.

“It is wonderful how people are coming together during the pandemic,” Priscilla wrote in a follow-up email.

Through word of mouth, the masks have ended up in other places as well, the Finns say; friends and other family members have shared them with fellow employees at their jobs, for instance. And if residents at Loomis Village have mostly opted for the plainer masks they’re made, “There are other people who like to have some fun by wearing one with a mustache or lips,” said Priscilla.

The Finns still check in at A2Z, as they own the King Street building and until October were living in an apartment above and behind the store. This year has been a tough one for Priscilla in particular, as she’s been active in politics — she and Jack went to to Washington, D.C. in early 2017 for the National Women’s March — and she had hoped to campaign for Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic candidates this year before the pandemic made that kind of door-to-door canvassing too dangerous.

“So we’ve made masks instead,” she said. “Just helping out our neighbors and friends until we all can be together again.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.