Old School Toys

American Artisans, People
on November 18, 2007

Donn Kreofsky’s work is child’s play. Surrounded by wind-up robots, model cars, Erector Sets, marbles, monkey sock dolls, and a 30-foot carousel, Kreofsky tends to L.A.R.K. Toys, his one-of-a-kind toy store and toy-making business in Kellogg, Minn. (pop. 439).

“The minute people come in the door, their smile gets a little larger,” says Kreofsky, 57. “The staff and I feed off that.”

Kreofsky’s 32,000-square-foot store boasts an inventory of 192,000 toys, some of which he designed.

Toy-making led to a career change for Kreofsky in 1983 after he designed wooden pull toys for his sons Chadd, David and Andrew. The hand-stained, homemade quality of his frogs, grasshoppers, turtles and dinosaurs proved so popular that he left his job as a college art professor to create L.A.R.K. Toys. “L.A.R.K. was easier to say than Kreofsky,” he explains. “It means Lost Arts Restored by Kreofsky.”

His wooden creations soon were carried by 2,500 stores across the country. Inspired by his toys’ success, he opened his own retail shop in 1986. Over the years, he slowly enlarged the complex to include a bookstore, cafe, old-fashioned candy store and individual stores featuring German/Russian nesting dolls, science toys and reproductions of toys that once were popular with baby boomers. “I kept adding stores to create a better environment and a fun place for children and adults,” he says.

“We’ve been coming here for 20 years,” says Emily Erickson of Red Wing, Minn. (pop. 16,116), visiting L.A.R.K. with her toddler grandson. “I still have the wooden carousel music box and hand puppet I bought my daughter here.”

The store also displays Kreofsky’s personal antique toy collection that features such toys as Tiddlywinks, Tinker Toys, rocking horses and Tonka trucks.

Kreofsky’s collection started in 1967 when he found a box of his childhood toys. “My mother brought plastic toys from the dime store to Mayo Clinic when I had polio,” Kreofsky says. “I’d play with Confederate and Union soldiers, cowboys and Indians on the hospital bed.”

His toy collection now includes 25,000 items, dating back to 1900. Russian nesting dolls, wiggling hula girls, medieval knights, and a 4-foot Barbie doll are some of the items that fill a dozen display cases lining L.A.R.K.’s halls.

“If it’s nicely made and makes me laugh, I keep it,” Kreofsky says. “Very few serious collectors would allow tens of thousands of people to see their collection. But I collect things for people to look at. I want everybody to see them.”

“It’s like going home to our childhood,” says Rhonda Segersterom, 48, a customer from Strum, Wis. (pop 1,001). As for the toys he sells, Kreofsky likes to evaluate each one on his living room floor. “I play with them and think how a child would play with them,” he says. “If I don’t have any fun, we’ll pull them off the shelves.”

You won’t find the latest video games and electronic gadgets at L.A.R.K. Toys. All the items sold in the store are hands-on and imagination-specific. In the Magic Troll Shop, kids run Thomas the Train sets, slip into make-believe costumes and create stories with hand puppets.

“It has to do with play value,” Kreofsky says. “Kids sit in front of the computer when they should be playing in the dirt and using their imaginations. Few of our toys are passive.”

Kreofsky’s favorite toy is his carousel. Nine years in the making, its 19 hand-carved and hand-painted animals were designed by Kreofsky. “Boys like the python seat on the dragon,” he says. “Women and girls always go for the giraffe.”

Each year the toy store draws 360,000 shoppers—tourists, school groups, business students and toy collectors—who love the world that Kreofsky has created. His staff loves it, too.

“How can you not like playing with toys and getting paid?” says Mary Eversman, 52, one of 35 L.A.R.K. employees. “With Donn, there’s always something new.”

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up ready to go to work,” Kreofsky says with a smile. “It’s fun.”