Maxima Gift Center
Maxima Gift Center
Jelena Babic and Brian Phillips
The fate and evolution of Maxima Gift Center is woven intimately into the relationship between the owners, the husband-wife couple of Brian Phillips and Jelena Babic. Brian and Jelena met nineteen years ago. She was living in Austria and had come to Boston for a visit. He had grown up in Norwood and always lived in the Boston area. They fell deeply in love, decided to get married and within a few months of tying the knot, Maxima was born!
Jelena is from the former Yugoslavia and originally studied architecture, but ended up gaining experience running a collection of specialty stores owned by her mother in the city of Belgrade before the Yugoslav Wars broke out. Brian had a background in business. “My passion is design, style and working with artists” Jelena explains, “and Brian handles the numbers.” They decided to pool in their creative and business talents to establish Maxima Gift Center. They immediately started looking for spaces all over the city – including downtown Boston and Brookline. While visiting a friend in Arlington, they noticed the storefront space they now inhabit was available for rent. Architecturally it is beautiful, with fine old fashioned woodwork framing a series of elegant arched windows and glass-paned doors. They did not hesitate.
Today when you enter the store, you are engulfed in layers of creative expression – from the artful way that Jelena designs the window displays, to the multitude of wind chimes, paper lanterns and dreamcatchers suspended from the ceiling, to a series of playful wall clocks ticking away. There are mugs handcrafted by New England ceramicists, local maps etched onto glass tumblers and scarves in various patterns and colors, all organized thoughtfully around the space. Racks of cards are lined up near the entrance in case you need to pop in to send someone a note. Newborn and children’s sections are towards the back, inviting elementary-age kids to browse for favorite authors or toddlers to grab onto a new stuffed toy, game, or puzzle. Gifts for adults are a large part of the inventory as well, from handmade jewelry to European bath and body products to kitchen accessories.
The petite and extremely stylish Jelena outlines their basic philosophy, “We try to have something for everyone.” She is always adorned with a unique piece of jewelry, which is usually available for purchase at Maxima. She and Brian make Maxima a warm, inviting experience by greeting familiar faces, checking in with customers about kids or grandkids and always letting people know they are available to help. They run a rewards program that donates a portion of money spent at Maxima to the public schools in Arlington, where their two sons are students.
Brian remembers the day before they opened in 1997. “It was the night before Labor Day. We were still working to setup the store. It was hot outside and there was no air-conditioning. After the movies ended in the late evening, people came streaming in. That’s how we started – the late hours of our store were determined on that night. We love being a part of the nightlife of Capitol Square. It’s challenging, but we also think it is important to be open 7 days a week.” They had just enough inventory to start with back on that late summer night. Today there are close to 10,000 items filling their store.
They agree that their biggest competitor is on-line shopping, which has had a negative effect on brick and mortar neighborhood shops for more than a decade now. For Brian and Jelena, keeping the dollars within the Arlington local community is important. On the sourcing side this means finding local artists’ work to sell and on the customer side it is engaging everyone who walks through the brightly painted red door. This community-building approach extends to the larger Capitol Square neighborhood. “We realize that each one of us is too small to attract a big audience, but if we get together and promote the same message and do events together – like the Feast of the East – we are more likely to be louder.”
The offerings are not only about following trends, they are also about hearing what customers want. As Jelena explains, “When we started the store it was only 600 sq feet. We started as a gallery for young emerging local artists: potters, ceramicists, jewelers, etc. That was a nice focus in beginning. But as we got to know what the clients in this neighborhood were looking for, we adjusted our focus. It is important to listen to them, their needs. We expanded to double our size which opened up room for new sections that people were asking about. Arlington was becoming a more family-oriented town and the need for more baby gifts, books, toys, and stationery grew. We are still strong with accessories and home goods. The expansion rounded us out to be a full-around, all-around gift store.”
Maxima will celebrate 20 years in 2017. When I asked them what they are looking forward to in the future, they mentioned trying out a seasonal pop-up store. Finishing each other’s sentences they say, “Who knows what else? We’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary next March, and Maxima’s 20th year anniversary in September 2017!”