Kellogg's LARK among 'coolest toy stores'
KELLOGG, Minn. -- When LARK Toys co-owner Kathy Gray got an email from a Reader's Digest Canada writer a few weeks ago, she really didn't think much of it.
"(The writer) said, 'I'm doing a piece on toy stores, and I'm including you,'" Gray said, adding that she emailed back a few photos of the store and went on with her day.
But when she saw the finished piece last weekend, Gray was surprised at what the magazine had printed. The article listed LARK Toys as one of the "10 coolest toy stores in the world," right alongside the famous FAO Schwarz in New York and Hamleys in London.
"I don't know how it happened .... We felt pretty humbled," Gray said. "We're the only independent one in the whole bunch."
Gray, along with husband Ron and daughter and son-in-law Miranda and Scott Gray-Burlingame, took over ownership of LARK Toys five years ago. But the store operated for nearly 25 years before that, getting its start as a producer of wooden pull toys.
While 25-year veteran toymaker Tim Monson still makes those traditional pieces in a woodshop located in the store, LARK has expanded quite a bit in the last two decades.
Now the shop's toy inventory sprawls through multiple vividly painted rooms and includes a wide selection of modern and vintage-inspired toys: anything from the expected tea sets and dress-up clothes to the more off-the-wall choices.
"We like things that grownups are going to like as much as kids," Miranda Gray-Berlingame said. "Quirky, strange, bizarre, fun things."
"We try to have lots of 'wows,'" Gray agreed, explaining the drive to create hands-on products -- "toys that stimulate ideas, thinking and creative play."
But LARK isn't just a seller of toys. The space is also home to a mini-golf course, ice cream, fudge and candy counters, an antique toy museum, a children's book store and, arguably the most popular attraction, a hand-made wooden carousel.
Each of the carousel's mounts -- which include a dragon, pig, unicorn and goldfish -- was carved by Monson and painted by Mary Eversman.
"It's just so joyful," Gray-Berlingame said of the carousel, which took nine years to make and started turning in 1997.
On Thursday afternoon, Dick and Dottie Hockford of Rosemount, Minn., brought grandchildren Abby, 5, and Zach, 4, to spend an afternoon at LARK and ride the carousel. The kids were visiting their grandparents from Texas, and Dottie said they were looking for something to do when they found the toy store.
"It's really something," Dick Hockford said.
"It's beautiful," Dottie agreed.
On a busy day, the shop sees hundreds of visitors. And they aren't just locals; LARK draws people from around the world.
Just last Monday, a group of children and their families from Mongolia visited the store after having medical work done at nearby Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
"We feel blessed to feel joy with people that are not having the best time," Gray-Burlingame said.
"We welcome everyone," Gray agreed. "Not only to buy toys, but to come and refresh, connect and experience some joy."