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Marvin's Toy Store in Crystal Lake focuses on playful learning

Daughter Kate McConville (left) stands with Fuzzy Bear alongside her mother Lori with the store's namesake Marvin The Elephant. The two founded Marvin's Toy Store in 2013. The Crystal Lake shop is the new business of the year award winner.
Daughter Kate McConville (left) stands with Fuzzy Bear alongside her mother Lori with the store's namesake Marvin The Elephant. The two founded Marvin's Toy Store in 2013. The Crystal Lake shop is the new business of the year award winner.

CRYSTAL LAKE – From Williams Street in downtown Crystal Lake, the storefront to Marvin’s Toy Store displays teddy bears, games, puzzles, building sets and other items meant to make children feel giddy.

But the many customers who have stepped inside the small, family-owned business since it opened two years ago understand the store offers toys a bit different from those commonly found at big-box retailers.

That’s exactly why the store’s growing niche of customers come, said Lori McConville, who co-owns Marvin’s Toy Store with her daughter Kate. By design, the store, 64-A N. Williams St., features products, programs and customer service draped in the McConvilles’ brand of social consciousness.

The ownership team researches the toys’ makeup to ensure the toys are environmentally-friendly, but not before examining the labor practices and community involvement of the manufacturers offering the products from factories located across the world.

Lori and Kate McConville even invite families and their children to make inventory decisions, with many children being allowed to experiment with newer products before the store makes a final order. The kid-tested method engages customers – a goal of Marvin’s Toy Store.

“We try to take an approach of people and community first and then money,” Lori McConville said. “We aren’t trying to sell whatever is the top seller. We want to make sure that our business is in it for the long run and that it is connecting with people.”

Marvin’s Toy Store earlier this fall won the new business of the year award during the Northwest Herald’s Commitment to McHenry County awards program primarily for its innovative and green business practices.

Lori McConville, a former elementary teacher who is active with area environmental groups, said she devised the business idea of a toy store offering eco-friendly products several years ago after talking with friends and educators who all wanted safe toys their children could enjoy but also learn from.

But her career and family postponed those business plans until a few years ago, when she found herself without a job in education and began researching the business idea. Kate McConville had planned to help her mom with the new venture, but she said she decided to join full-time after the two worked well together as business partners.

By summer 2013, the two had opened Marvin’s Toy Store. Now, the store employs three others, allowing the owners to spend more time behind the scenes researching their products and manufacturers.

The homework is necessary, Kate McConville said, to ensure toys and their makers are meeting the store’s product criteria, which emphasizes the environment and engagement. The educational process also enables the owners to talk knowledgeably with customers and help them find the right toy for their child, she said.

“We know a lot about the companies that we have,” Kate McConville said. “We can tell you about them, where the products are made, who makes them, how they are made, what is in the toy, why it’s safe and why it’s going to last.”

Even though the toys are meant for fun, the two owners also believe they are helping fill gaps within the education system.

With curriculum tied to more rigorous standards and student assessments happening more regularly, educators and parents who visit Marvin’s Toy Store often complain students aren’t having enough fun in the classroom, Lori McConville said.

The toys displayed inside the storefront of Marvin’s Toy Store are intended to engage children, spark their creativity and expose them to other ways of learning, she said. That reason among others is why the store carefully selects its products.

“Teachers are crying in my store – and I mean that literally – because they feel as though the testing is more important than the child, and they don’t have have any control in their classroom to bring that element of fun anymore. Parents feel it, too. They have to supplement what’s happening in the classroom,” Lori McConville said. “When they come here, they can.”

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