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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Jolting communities, Isis to shut its centers

Firm cites harsh retail climate

Kathleen Gallagher (left) of Lynnfield and Morgen Gallo of Arlington lamented the Isis Parenting closing.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Kathleen Gallagher (left) of Lynnfield and Morgen Gallo of Arlington lamented the Isis Parenting closing.

Since it opened in a small Brookline space in 2003, Isis Parenting has been in the business of educating and calming new and expectant parents. But Tuesday night, the company itself became the source of parental meltdowns when it abruptly announced all its classes were ending and that its four Massachusetts centers, and those in Georgia and Texas, would soon be closing.

“Isis is the biggest support system for pregnant women and new moms,” Dawn Murray, a mother of two from Hingham, said Wednesday. “I took a childbirth class there. I took a breast-feeding class. I took infant CPR, toddler CPR. When I was pregnant my doctor was like, go to Isis to take delivery classes. When I was at the hospital, they said if you have any breast-feeding issues, call the lactation consultants at Isis.”

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Isis classes could run to $250 for an eight-week session, thousands of customers went to its centers annually, and hundreds of thousands participated in webinars, chats, and other online services. The popularity captured the societal truth that with large numbers of women in the workforce and families far-flung, many new parents want to take classes for what were once basic child-rearing skills, and they want help finding baby-centered friends.

And when that service disappears overnight, the reaction, predictably, is swift.

The news left officials at the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation “scrambling” Wednesday to determine how many customers of Isis might be affected, said undersecretary Barbara Anthony. Isis has not filed for bankruptcy.

“We reached out to them today, when all of this started breaking, but it’s all happening so quickly,” Anthony said, adding that her office would send an investigator to check into the situation. “It’s obviously something that we are concerned about.”

For now, Isis stores will likely remain open for only a few weeks, and customers are being urged to spend any unused credit quickly.

By catering to more affluent parents, Isis was sometimes derided as a place where those parents turned to professionals for help with what should be the homey act of raising a child. That perspective was captured in a single tweet. “NO Isis?!” @ewyner wrote, “I will now be able to walk thru Pru w/o being run over by Yummy Mummy in Lulu Lemon and $1000 stroller! Sweet!!”

But most of the outpouring Wednesday was sadness.

“I’ve been crying since last night,” Murray said. She said her 2-year-old son’s “Walkers and Talkers” class at the Hanover location had been cancelled, but she felt pulled to the store anyway — and found “a funeral” of like-minded mourners.

“How did this happen?” she all but wailed. “I don’t understand.”

Indeed, with classes cancelled and Isis gift cards unspent, “why” was the question of the day.

The woman attempting to answer it was Isis CEO Heather Coughlin. “Let me collect myself for a moment,” she said in a midday telephone interview, conducted from a location she described as a “bunker” (actually the Needham headquarters for the small firm).

“This is a tough environment for independent retailers. It’s no mystery. There are a lot of competitive forces — there’s diapers.com and Amazon.com. We have an e-platform, too, but when you’re an independent retailer you can’t compete. There’s great education happening in our classrooms, but we’re also sitting in large spaces that have half of the area dedicated to products. We have to be able to sustain ourselves.”

Emily Pace (left, with son Thomas) and Kathleen Gallagher (with daughter Anna) have been part of the Isis clientele.

Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe

Emily Pace (left, with son Thomas) and Kathleen Gallagher (with daughter Anna) have been part of the Isis clientele.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that the company, which was first called Isis Maternity and grew to 200 full- and part-time employees, 150 of them in Massachusetts, has raised nearly $9.7 million since 2003. A filing made in late February shows that Isis was trying to raise just over $4 million by offering shares to private investors — a common practice for companies trying to expand. Records show Isis had sold nearly $2.97 million worth. After focusing its growth in its early years on Massachusetts, opening in Arlington, Needham, Hanover, and the Prudential Center in Boston, it expanded in 2013 to Atlanta and Dallas.

That growth partly explains why customers were so stunned by the suddenness of the demise. Many described interacting normally with Isis on Tuesday, only to be blindsided by online notifications. A 10:45 p.m. post on the Isis Facebook page said: “With heavy hearts, we announce the extremely sad news that Isis Parenting must close. Effective immediately, no classes or phone consults will take place.”

Addressing the shock factor, Coughlin blamed things “beyond [their] control.” She said, “We had to manage a message. We could not do it piecemeal. We had to take advice from various parties on how we communicated to the outside world.”

But even Isis’ many supporters – and the bereaved were so passionate that there was talk on social media of a Kickstarter or some other fund-raising campaign—are worried about financial matters.

“I have $450 in gift cards,” said Arlington mother Morgen Gallo, “When people asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said ‘gift cards.’” She used part to pay for a “scooters” class for her six-month-old son, and still has about $200 left. “I have no idea if I’m going to be reimbursed.”

Coughlin advised people to go to the stores — which will probably remain open for about one to four weeks. As for the classes, she said e-mails will be sent to those who have signed up.

“We are doing our very best — putting in 16- and 17-hour days to make sure we have a plan for as many clients as possible so their class experience doesn’t end even if it doesn’t take place [at an Isis center],” she said.

“We have to be careful because I cannot promise anything. But the team is committed to doing everything we can possibly do to give our clients the chance to continue to take the classes they have already registered for.”

The closing of Isis has left its local hospital partners eager to assure nervous patients. At least one posted a note on its website. “While we have had a wonderful collaboration over the years, we at Beth Israel Deaconess have a long history of providing our patients with education and support and will continue to do so,” it read.

Anthony said anyone holding gift cards or other credit at Isis should try to spend the money before the company’s stores close permanently. Customers who try to spend that money and can’t, Anthony added, should file a complaint with the attorney general’s office.

The loss of Isis will also affect some nonprofits, which were the beneficiaries of donations from Isis customers. “The parenting community of Isis customers and the company have been extraordinary supporters of Room to Grow, donating thousands of baby items to families in need,” Saskia Epstein, Room to Grow's CEO, said in an e-mail.

Other companies are hoping to capture some of the firm’s customers. “Sorry to hear of #isisparenting closure,” @GymboreeNeedham tweeted. “We invite families to visit us at 225 Highland Ave in Needham.”

Considering the good will Isis built up, capturing the hearts, and the wallets, of former Isis clients may be tough.

“When I was on maternity leave and ‘figuring it all out’ I used to go to Isis all the time,” Georgina Prager, an Arlington mother, recalled. “I would just stand around watching people and eventually someone would come over and help me wrap and rewrap Joey (or a doll while he slept) in some big strap of fabric until I felt like I was a champion baby wearer. I know they are a business and I was their target market, but it always felt so soothing there.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell. Erin Ailworth contributed to this story. She can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth

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