The instant you step into LARK Toys, it’s apparent that something is different from every other toy store.
It’s the voices. From one direction comes the sound of someone squealing in delight: “Look at this.” From the other comes a plaintive demand: “You’ve had it long enough. Let me try it now.” And from across the room comes a succinct: “Awesome!”
The reactions aren’t atypical; it’s the people who are reacting that make this place different. That’s because it’s adults — not children — expressing glee as they stumble upon something that thrusts them back into their childhood.
A mother shows her young son a Jacob’s ladder and beams as his eyes widen in amazement as the blocks of wood cascade downward. “That’s impossible,” he feebly argues. Next to them, a man excitedly demonstrates a Gyro Wheel to his grandchildren, showing how flipping the metal wand back and forth causes the magnetized wheel to zip up one side and down the other. “I used to play with one of these by the hour,” he announces.
About 90 minutes southeast of the Twin Cities in Kellogg, Minn., LARK is part toy store, part time warp. With an emphasis on nostalgic toys, including its own line of handmade wooden playthings, it has become a destination spot for shoppers who prefer a stroll down memory lane to a trek through the mall.
It is the anti-warehouse store. It’s huge — over 20,000 square feet in all — but intimate at the same time. It consists of a series of rooms that create the impression that you’re in a modest neighborhood shop. The back of each room has a door that leads to another room — and then another and yet another. Every time you start thinking, “This has to be the end,” it seems that there’s another door.
This is not the kind of place you bop in, grab the toy-du-jour that’s all the rage this holiday season and then head off on your next errand. You walk, you browse, you play. Then you take a break at the cafe, ice cream counter or fudge stand (or all three) before getting back to exploring.
The complex comes with a map so you can navigate your way from the toy workshop — which bears an uncanny resemblance to Santa’s version, albeit with bigger workers — to the book store, where contemporary kid lit shares shelf space with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
In 1984, Donn Kreofsky, a former Winona State University art professor, and his wife, Sarah, founded Lost Arts Revival by Kreofsky (LARK) where they started selling Kreofsky’s handmade toys. They retired 10 years ago and sold the store to the Grays, Ron and Kathy, who run it with their daughter and son-in-law, Miranda and Scott Gray-Burlingame.
It continues to grow. Today the inventory of more than 4,000 toys representing 200 vendors includes a little bit of everything, from ant farms in the science and nature section to toddlers’ pull toys in the wooden-toy area. There are plenty of modern toys — Magna-Tiles magnetic building sets are one of the biggest sellers, Ron Gray says — as well as more traditional offerings.
“We start selling a lot of jigsaw puzzles as soon as the weather turns cold,” Gray says. “The other day we sold one that has 32,000 pieces. That would drive me nuts.”
You can find pretty much everything except one category of toy: those that have to be plugged in.
Here, there are hands-on toys. Displays include demos that kids of all ages find hard to pass by. The only rules are that you return the toys to their original location and you “play respectfully” with them.
The store draws 100,000 visitors a year, Gray estimates. Sooner or later, almost all of them end up at LARK’s trademark attraction: Its indoor carousel with hand-carved wooden horses — as well as a dragon, a giant goldfish and a pink flamingo. And, like everything else in the place, it’s as popular with grown-ups as it is with youngsters.
“We’ve had a 100-year-old ride it,” Gray says.