The appearance of LARK Toys on Highway 61 hit us the way Harmon Killebrew hit baseballs back in the day. It’s a long building that stands by itself, not another structure in sight. Big, purple signs line the road in front of the place and scream ICE CREAM, FUDGE, CAFE, TOYS. My wife read them aloud as she passed them. When she read the one that says BOOKS, she folded Transformer-style into a slot machine and let off her jackpot alarms. Or so it sounded.
What we found inside was the kind of place you could spend a long time exploring. I say that as somebody who spent a long time at LARK Toys, riding their carousel, eating cheese curds, checking out classic toy displays and humming to myself in contemplation. It was a good hour.
Sometimes, the right way to capture an experience is through story; other times, it’s an unasked-for bombardment of so-so-quality pictures. You know I love a good text wall, but today we’re busting out our worst angles and camera phone filters to show you LARK Toys.
To see any picture in its full-sized glory, just click on it.
Click onto LARK Toys’ website and you’re slapped by accolades: a top-10 toy store in the world, says USA Today; voted best toy store in Minnesota by WCCO viewers; a top-10 coolest toy store in the world, from Readers Digest; and one of the world’s greatest toy stores, per Travel and Leisure. It’s technically in Kellogg, Minnesota, which we now know is a real town.
We overshot the main entrance, so did we turn off the next available exit, cruise aimlessly down an off-road, double back on a dirt road that looked only one-and-a-half cars wide, and luck into LARK Toys? Bet your gasbox we did.
You step inside and you see one heck of an iceberg tip. There’s a guestbook station, and what looks like a dinosaur down the hall to your right. To the left are the cafe and souvenir shop, and you pass down Memory Lane on the way over.
LARK Toys was first opened in 1983 by Donn Kreofsky and his wife to sell wooden toys Donn had made. According to this article by the Star Tribune, LARK stands for Lost Arts Revival by Kreofsky (LARK). Over the following decade, Donn put his woodworking skills to use on something massive: the carousel that draws so many visitors to LARK Toys today. He spent nine years carving the seats and center accents. He hired Mary Eversman to paint the carvings, and the carousel was ready for use in 1997.
The Kreofskys sold the business to the present owners, Kathy and Ron Gray, in 2008. Donn Kreofsky passed away in 2010, and Eversman passed away three years later, but the carousel is still in operation. Two dollars in the souvenir shop gets you a wooden ticket good for one ride.
We didn’t eat enough at LARK Toys. We should have indulged on fudge. We should have had milkshakes. Instead, we just bumped hands repeatedly over a basket of cheese curds and got coffee. It’s a good serving and they’re worthy curds, carnival-style in a classic red basket. Extra points for the cocktail umbrella.
They make a nice cup of coffee, which we desperately needed. If you want to rightly experience LARK Toys, though, and you’re not in the middle of a six-hour drive, you really ought to be drinking Bug Barf or Monster Mucus. They sell it by the bottle.
There isn’t a formal menu on the LARK website but sandwiches, burgers, and salads are advertised. Ice cream is available from Madison-based Chocolate Shoppe. They’ve a few tables, but you’ll probably have to carry it if you come on a busy day.
Did you miss the fudge like we did? Don’t worry: they ship.
Memory Lane is exactly that: a section of hallway between the front entrance and carousel, lined with display cases. Through their windows you see the history of play: in one, an arrangement of kitchen toys; in another, rows and rows of robots. There’s a glowing police box with Doctor Who toys; there’s another filled with Santa figurines and Christmas-themed toys. If you want to leave your own signature on the place, LARK accepts donations for their collection.
Crowds of stuffed animals in the display cases and shops reminded my wife of Farley, a teddy bear her father bought the day before she was born. Farley was waiting for her in the hospital room, and they haven’t been too far apart since.
“Farley has been my comfort through dozens of tear-filled nights,” she recalled. “He’s always kept my secrets, and once he even survived having his paw dunked in hot coffee.”
She talked about grade school, when she was obsessed with The Babysitters Club and constantly forming new clubs for her and her younger sister. My wife was always President, and Farley was always Vice President. Her sister had to stick with being the club secretary.
My wife’s Vice President lives in our bedroom today, on a high shelf and safely out of the dog’s reach.
A lawn dart set in a glass display is what got me. Man, there’s no way I could count the hours we spent with the neighbor kids playing lawn darts in the front yard. It was a friendly game, but did we sometimes smile at the thought of a lawn dart throw accidentally impaling somebody? Probably.
Lawn darts are illegal now, which is stupid. But that’s another story.
We didn’t even bring up the mini-golf course at LARK Toys. It’s the full 18 holes, and looks intense. We didn’t even bring up the llamas. Not a typo. They’ve got llamas. We also didn’t bring up the bookstore. My wife skimmed through it, says it’s nice but mostly focused on children’s books.
The actual toy store is predictably huge, and laid out like a level in the original Final Fantasy game. How many toys does it have? They have a section dedicated to lunchboxes. How’s that for an answer? And yes: the Gray family still hand-makes toys on site. The only toys not available, per the Tribune article, are toys that have to be plugged in.
The right fancy chess set and I might have dropped some serious cash here.
More information on LARK Toys can be found on their website. You’re going to have a hard time getting there during the week, and you’ll want to call ahead to check if you want to play mini-golf (it’s open “if weather permits”). My head would have exploded here had I come as a child. But the adult traveler will find plenty to appreciate, too.
Updates were made to this article with additional historical information shortly after its publication. LARK was also rewritten as an acronym.