Lori and Kate McConville’s mission isn’t about selling toys. It’s about shaping the future minds of tomorrow. Here’s how they do it.
When Kate McConville’s son was a young boy, she had a difficult time finding a toy store that had what she needed: quality toys that would endure through more than a few uses.
“I didn’t make a lot of money,” she says. “I wanted the money I did make to go to something that was better quality and safe for my child so it would last. I didn’t want to waste my money on junk for him.”
The Crystal Lake resident couldn’t find the sorts of independent specialty toy stores that were most likely to have high-quality, enduring toys. At the time, she had few choices in Crystal Lake, and most were national retailers. The Toy Connection, which was a small store in downtown Crystal Lake, closed when her son was only 2.
So, McConville found herself driving closer to Chicago and around the city to places like Play in Logan Square.
“We went there, and I found toys for my son and thought, ‘This needs to be where we are,’” she says. “Kids where we live deserve this kind of curated store for them.”
When Toy Connection closed its downtown store, the idea to open a new toy store started forming. McConville’s mother, Lori McConville, who’d spent a decade as an elementary educator and tutor in the Crystal Lake area, spent the next couple of years forming ideas and planning for what would become Marvin’s Toy Store.
Lori’s work as an educator brought to light the significant impact toys can have on a child’s development.
“When you’re an educator in primary grades, you understand very keenly how important it is to get good, quality time for children to learn, and they learn through play,” says Lori. “It’s ultra-important to have children at that age stimulated with proper play, and that’s where toys come in. If you choose a good toy for a child from a company that’s serious about child development, then parents get the benefits of that research, and educators know that helps kids get ready for school and helps them learn.”
Kate saw it, too, through her work as a breastfeeding counselor for McHenry County WIC. In helping low-income mothers and infants, she saw that all families want and deserve high-quality toys for their children, no matter their income level.
The McConvilles combined those experiences and opened Marvin’s Toy Store, 64 A N. Williams St., in downtown Crystal Lake in June 2013.
Upon entering the store, families and children are greeted with an atmosphere that’s conducive to decision-making. The purposefully chosen colors, lighting and music create an environment for children to be excited, yet calm.
“Our mission isn’t necessarily to sell something. It’s to help a family and a child make a choice,” says Lori. We don’t want the atmosphere over-stimulating. We help kids to be in a good state of mind so they can experience the store. “Sometimes it’s as small as just saying, ‘Today is just a look day. Today we look, and you go home and think about it.’ You’d be surprised how immediately that calms a child down. It takes all the pressure off them and allows them to just look around and be satisfied with what we have in the store.”
Parents also enjoy the store’s relaxing vibe, says Lori, and they tell her they appreciate the no-pressure approach. Indeed, a child’s curiosity and desire to learn are built into every dimension of the store. The products sell themselves, especially when the McConvilles offer up their knowledge.
The formula has worked so well in Crystal Lake that the McConvilles have extended their reach to two additional outlets: a full store at 100 E. Station St. in Barrington, and Mini Marvin’s, a display of toys inside Read Between the Lynes, 111 E. Van Buren St. in Woodstock.
No matter the location, a central goal is to help children feel comfortable, excited, welcomed and accepted when walking into the store, say the McConvilles. They thoroughly train staff members on how to approach shoppers. “We train our staff to help customers, not just sell,” Kate says.
What further sets apart Marvin’s Toy Store is the way in which products are vetted before they even appear on the shelf. Each item is carefully selected based on three criteria: play value, durability and category. At least 80% or more of the toys at Marvin’s fall under one or more of nine categories: planet-friendly, responsible, organic, fair trade, active play, recycled, parent crafted, locally made and natural.
“We look at play value and durability as well because a toy can hit all of our criteria – it can be made by a family business, be socially responsible, environmentally friendly – but if it doesn’t last and it’s not fun, then none of that matters,” Kate says. “A kid has to want to play with it, and it has to be able to stand up to kids playing with it.”
The McConvilles shy away from screen toys and put a heavy focus on hands-on play. In the event they do stock electronic products, they emphasize active play that’s engaging to young minds.
The Tonies Starter Box is one such toy, and it’s a big seller lately. This interactive audio system combines music, literature and storytelling into a miniature speaker. The box comes with characters like Disney princesses or classic story characters that, when placed on the box, can play music and tell stories. The characters’ voices encourage dancing and interaction with children.
“I have a little one who uses it,” Kate says. “She plays her music and her stories, but it’s hands-on.”
Throughout their nine years in business, the McConvilles have worked hard to stick by their principles.
“I’m built in a way where what I do has to matter,” Lori says. “We are leaders in the community because of the values we put into our business. People appreciate that we don’t shy away from our values, and that’s becoming very important in business itself. How you govern your company is just as important as the things that you sell in it or the products or services you provide.”
The McConvilles back it up by listening to their customers. Lori explains that one of the most important traits for a retailer in a smaller community is to know their customer base and ensure those potential customers know the brand.
Kate encourages business owners to have a direct plan for how they want to operate.
“The most important part is having a clear vision of what you want for your business,” she says. “There’s a reason behind why you start a business, and you have to be able to hold on to that core reason. If the decisions you make, even when you have to be flexible, come back to those core values, that’s where you find success.”
Research matters, too.
“Be educated about what you’re doing, no matter what the business is,” Kate says. “There are a lot of great resources like the Small Business Administration and Chambers of Commerce.”
One of the biggest pleasures of owning a toy store for the McConvilles is being part of the community and witnessing the long-lasting impressions they’ve made.
“Every community wants a toy store,” Lori says. “We now have kids who have grown up with us and we’re seeing them come back as teenagers. The stories that they share about what they’ve purchased from our store and the experiences they’ve gotten here have been very valuable. It’s something that I don’t take for granted.”