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In Store: Bob Marsh toys with emotion

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"We have two kinds of yo-yos--with and without brains," Bob Marsh explains to a customer at Toyscape, the cluttered shop he runs in New Town. Marsh is the kind with brains: though he wears a velvet jester's cap, he's a former child psychologist and art therapist. His partner Sandra Yolles works the cash register; beside her sits a white porcelain replica of a phrenologist's head with its map of human character zones. Two adjacent zones--"humor, mirthfulness, wit" and "constructiveness, ingenuity, dexterity, contrivance"--might be the formula for Toyscape.

Marsh demonstrates the Levitron, a spinning top that hovers midair in a magnetic field, violating Earnshaw's Law. "A formula I absolutely don't understand," Marsh gamely admits. "In a sense it does nothing but create this sense of wonder. That's what toys should do--open up a realm of possibilities."

"We buy things we love," says Yolles. "No Barbies or Power Rangers here." But Toyscape does stock Japanese windup robots called Machine Man, NonStop, and Sonic, not to mention handcrafted Vietnamese percussion instruments, a how-to book on making hand and puppet shadows, a home planetarium, a zoetrope, and a 550-piece puzzle of Jackson Pollock's 1947 painting Alchemy. "We found it was a mistake to stock anything just to sell it," says Marsh. "It has to do something for us. We're not very good businesspersons. It's amazing we haven't put ourselves out of business yet."

For 15 years Marsh worked with disturbed children, using materials like masking tape and copper wire for art activities; on the side he sculpted with granite and hardwoods. "Painting had eluded me," he says. "It was too slippery. I learned from the children how to paint. I watched them take this stuff that was squishy and fearlessly rub it around." After he and Yolles moved to Chicago in 1980 Marsh ran an arts workshop for profoundly retarded adults. "I recited poetry in Spanish and chased them around, and things happened that weren't supposed to. A guy 30 years old who never spoke before began to speak a little. One of those words was 'no,' and that upset his mother a lot." Today Marsh's inner jester surfaces in an eight-point credo tacked to the wall at Toyscape. Number four reads: "There's something poetic about a grown man playing a toy accordion."

Some of the facilities where Marsh worked would prohibit the patients from watching television, a lesson he eagerly applied to Toyscape. "Too many toys are preprogrammed to be played in a certain way," he complains. "It's the same with TV. It's a wonderful thing but it renders people passive. Particularly for children since it manipulates space for them. They don't get to manipulate it for themselves. For children at risk it can actually be dangerous. Children would be better off with just cardboard boxes rather than most of the toys out there."

By resisting the Christmas marketing blitz, Toyscape preserves the magic of toys: when a child unwraps a gift, he sees an item foreign to Toys R Us or Saturday-morning television. According to Yolles, more than one child has taken an exotic toy as proof that Santa Claus is real. She thinks the store is a tonic for adults too. "It's such a release," she says. "You can hear it in their voices. They say it's a real toy store."

Adds Marsh, "Sadly, adults will come into the store and say, 'What wonderful things you have--I don't have anyone to buy them for.'" For Marsh and Yolles, the solution is obvious: buy them for yourself.

Toyscape is located at 2911 N. Broadway; for more information, call 773-665-7400. --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): artwork photos and Sandra Yolles, Bob Marsh photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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