School is out, and the bells that mete out winter’s work are mostly silent.
Ah, summertime, with its fair weather, free time – and repeated refrain of “What can we do?”
Parents resort to tired scripts (“Only boring people are bored”; “I know you can use your imagination and think of something”; and, “If you’re so bored, you can help scrub the bathtub”) and wonder how to fill the unstructured weeks that stretch ahead.
They will find answers galore at Oliver’s Trains and Toys, 2002 Central St. The pint-sized store, which opened at the end of March, is piled high with ideas for fun. And its young owners, Bogdan and Siri Rogalski, are on hand to offer suggestions.
A mix of traditional and high-tech toys is neatly stacked on the shelves of the compact space that formerly housed a bead shop. Among the most popular of their summer selection, say the owners, are nostalgic items from a line of simple rope toys – a Chinese jump rope, an ankle-looped skip rope with a ball known to the parents as Lemonhead, rope-and-cylinder walking toys called “steppers” and a hard-to-find double-Dutch jump rope.
With the Lake Michigan beach in their backyard, Evanston’s children can make good use of Oliver’s imaginative sand and water toys. There are rings to dive for and a chest full of coins for an undersea treasure hunt. There are cake molds for pastry chefs who cook with sand and water and a large hourglass that will ensure their bake times are precise. There is a horseshoe game for the pool, a flotilla of small wooden boats, binoculars for sea-gazing and large magnifying glasses for studying lake specimens.
Not specific to summer but good for occupying its idle hours are plastic dinosaurs and the small- or medium-sized vehicles called Green Toys, made in San Francisco of sustainable materials. Story Cubes are dice with pictures to use as prompts for storytelling. Future engineers can construct a marble run from directions and then design another “Contraption” on their own. Science sets will pique interest in the way things work, and dress-ups – from superhero capes and a knight’s chain mail to princess gowns – foster role play in the way people work.
True to its name, Oliver’s has an enviable selection of wooden trains – Thomas and Brio – and models of Chicago buses and el cars.
Oliver’s also has fixes, if no permanent cure, for the age-old “Are we there yet?” complaint.
A customer just hours away from an overseas flight with a 3½- and a 1½-year-old came away from the store with a sack full of delights. Under the guidance of Ms. Rogalski, she found a cloth bag with a design to color; a first dot-to-dot book; a rechargeable flashlight; a collection of favorite card games; a book of mazes and another of color-and-scratch designs.
Best of all was the hard plastic Trunki, a small, wheeled suitcase the children could ride through the airport with their toys stowed safely inside.
The Rogalskis seem to bring to their venture some of the wonder they see on the faces of their young customers. Parents of a 6- and an 8-year-old, they are novices in the world of retail, Mr. Rogalski admits. He is a software developer who has kept his job in that field; his wife is a former stay-at-home-mom. Having always wanted “to achieve more,” he says they started a small business selling wooden trains online but “making no money.”
They had some inventory and knew one sales rep for toys. But because they have friends who own Royin restaurant, they also knew Central Street. Though they live in Wilmette, Mr. Rogalski says he and his wife were aware there were “lots of young families” in the neighborhood around the Central Street shopping district. “We had thought of a toy store here,” he says, “but there was no space [available].”
When Beadazzled closed, leaving a vacant storefront, they saw their chance. They decided, “Let’s do it. What can go wrong?” he says. They had sized up the competition – two Evanston toy stores and one in Wilmette – and told themselves, “We have no experience and less money. But we have a better spot.”
“Dealing with the City was easy,” says Mr. Rogalski, adding that negotiating with the landlord was “pleasant” as well. They had only to paint and install a new floor and counter to retrofit the place.
Assembling the inventory was the challenge. They combed the Internet, pursuing toys that “sparked our interest,” he says. Their search led them to sales reps, whose advice they say they “heavily relied on.” They reasoned that the reps’ self-interest in making a sale would be tempered by their interest in “selling good stuff” so the store would be around for the future, he says.
When they laid out their first purchases, the store looked so empty they had to order more, which delayed their opening by a month. Now that the store is full, Mr. Rogalski says they intend to keep certain core items and “change up the others.”
Their hunch about location has proved true so far. Mr. Rogalski says neighbors have received them well. “Many [customers] have said ‘thank you for being here,’” he says.