Imagination is precious in the mind of a child, and it’s also the driving force at this locally owned toy store. This mother-daughter duo is helping kids to play and create without the need for screens or electronics.
How has a toy store that doesn’t sell electronics managed to stay afloat in today’s tech-heavy society?
By using some imagination.
Marvin’s Toy Store, 64A N. Williams St., in downtown Crystal Lake, celebrates its third anniversary this summer with a continually growing customer base.
Owners Lori and Kate McConville, a mother-daughter duo from unincorporated Crystal Lake, have foregone the traditional big-box mentality of offering screen-heavy inventory in favor of providing toys, games and books that get kids (and the young at heart) moving and thinking.
So, instead of carrying a screen toy that uses emojis – the smiley faces often used while texting – the store houses emoji playground balls, fusing outdoor play with a relevant theme.
Parents and kids are on board with Marvin’s imaginative and environmentally friendly selection.
“The key to children growing is using their imagination,” says Lori, 55, a former educator. “They explore, touch, feel and pretend. Just playing outside – that’s key to a child really developing healthfully.”
Aside from the lack of screen toys available at Marvin’s, two other elements set the toy store apart from competitors.
First, the McConvilles dig deep to research the companies from which they buy their merchandise.
“Ask any educator, and they’ll tell you that researching and learning is key to growing,” Lori says. “I take that and put it in my business. How can a good toy help kids and give them enjoyment in their life?”
She and Kate use nine criteria to aid their selection of inventory, so that each item has at least one of the following characteristics: green (planet-friendly); responsible (labor/manufacturing practices and giving back to the community); organic; fair trade; promotes activity; made from recycled materials; created/founded by parents; made in the U.S.; and crafted with natural materials.
Because of their extensive research, the McConvilles truly understand not only their products, but what kids enjoy at varying ages.
“We know about our products, so when you come in here and say, ‘I have a 6-year-old nephew and I don’t really know what he’s into,’ we can help you find that product and tell you about it, where it’s made, why it’s here, and why it’s a good toy,” says 30-year-old Kate. “We don’t focus on what’s trendy at the moment. We focus on what has play value, what is going to last – toys that you can play with, hold on to, pass down.”
Caring for Customers
If there’s one product that represents Marvin’s overall business perspective, it might be Thinking Putty.
The “fidget toy” – a term that describes items that help children and adults focus and actively listen – stretches, bounces and pops, and it comes in different colors and attributes: some glow, others have magnets.
“The kids are crazy about it,” Lori says.
What really sold her on the product was its backstory.
The creator of Thinking Putty, who hails from Pennsylvania, employs adults with physical or emotional disabilities to help him package and ship his products around the world.
“We share that information with our customers, so there’s always a conversation about our products,” says Lori. “In this instance, Thinking Putty is good not just for you to have in your home, but you’re supporting other good things.
“People want that,” she continues. “They’re very glad that we’re here. They tell us, ‘I’m so glad that you’ve done that homework for me.’ They trust us.”
Those conversations, coupled with the personal attention Lori and Kate give their customers, are some of the reasons Marvin’s has an international customer base.
“Uncle Liam,” godfather to 10-year-old Kiara Kearns of McHenry, lives in Ireland, but he calls the shop every Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day – Kiara’s birthday – to order just the right gift for his favorite niece.
A few years back, Uncle Liam stumbled upon Marvin’s while searching online for a toy store in McHenry County, recalls his sister-in-law, Lisa Kearns.
“He called them up and said, ‘Listen, I have a niece, 8, going to be 9. I’d like to see what you can put together,’” Kearns says.
The gift that year was spot-on, Kearns says. In fact, she took Kiara to meet Lori and Kate to thank them for their help and to show them how much her daughter loved the origami kit and Stella Batts books. A very happy Uncle Liam has continued to call Lori at least twice a year.
“They’re like his little personal shoppers now,” Kearns says. “When those two holidays roll around, Marvin’s gets a call from my brother-in-law in Ireland. Everything Kiara has gotten from them, she’s been over the moon about.”
Do Your Homework
Lori spent years dreaming about opening a toy store, but she knew her imagination could only take her so far.
So, before Marvin’s became a reality, she did her homework – something she once doled out to students in preschool through seventh grade during her 10 years as a teacher and tutor.
Lori’s instincts told her that downtown Crystal Lake would be a perfect place to open her shop. The store’s namesake, Marvin, is fashioned from her childhood imaginary pet elephant and the elephant puppet she used to introduce kindergartners to her classroom at the start of each school year.
Lori confirmed her instincts by hiring a marketer to research the demographics of nearby communities. McHenry County proved to be ripe for a toy store: there were plenty of families with children and a strong education system in place.
“We knew we had a population that was interested in what we wanted to do,” Lori says.
Lori also created a business plan. She worked at an antique store for a year to see if she could handle retail, and finally contacted the Illinois Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which proved to be an eye-opening experience, she says.
The SBDC told her that small businesses have only a 10 to 15 percent success rate.
Then, a business specialist asked her tough questions.
“They challenged my idea,” Lori says. “[SBDC’s Brian DiBona asked me], ‘Do you know how many customers you need to walk in the store every day, and how much they would have to spend every day in order to pay your bills?’ He made me write those things down so I could look at those numbers. That was something I didn’t know how to do at the beginning.”
She also reached out to local business owners like Mary Batson, who encouraged her to move forward with her plans.
“I am a big cheerleader for people to go out and fulfill a dream, so one of the things I said to her was, ‘I think you should go for it,’” says Batson, owner of Out of the Box, a gift and home decor store located in downtown Crystal Lake.
The two discussed logistics, like what computer system Batson used, but Lori also asked questions about downtown Crystal Lake, and Batson shared her positive experiences as a business owner.
“We have a Main Street organization which is supportive,” Batson says. “Generally, we all support each other: group advertising, joint events – things that we all work together on to bring business here. I talked to her about what a great community we have.”
With that information in hand, Lori partnered up with Kate, who, with a young son at home, proved to be a good resource for young parents. The pair haven’t looked back.
The pair is grateful for the backing of downtown Crystal Lake, fellow merchants and their steady customers, Kate says. Lori notes that the pair feel a great sense of accomplishment.
“Our little store has become a part of something bigger – the community and being a positive influence on families’ lives – and that’s a good feeling,” Lori says. “When your work has purpose, it’s very gratifying. Combine that with working together, mother and daughter – that’s pretty good.”