LINCOLN SQUARE — There are two versions of the story of how Harry and Martha Burrows came to open Timeless Toys, 4749 N. Lincoln Ave., 20 years ago.
The one that Harry likes to tell: "My wife was volunteering at our son's Waldorf school. She was doing a lot of painting and the fumes got to her."
Not true, countered Martha.
"We were actors and looking for more stable employment," she said. (And, for the record, the paint was totally non-fumey.)
As long-time residents of Lincoln Square and parents of a then-5-year-old, the Burrows noticed there was no toy store between Lincoln Park and Evanston.
"We decided to take the risk," said Martha.
She recalled the shop's first day — her first time ever ringing a cash register — and the couple's fears they'd made a mistake.
"Harry said, 'Do you think people are going to stop having babies?'"
Anyone familiar with Lincoln Square's stroller brigade knows the answer to that question. The risk paid off so well for the couple, they just re-upped their lease for another 15 years.
In the intervening years, a Target has opened a mile to the north and a Toys 'R' Us the same distance to the south. Yet Timeless Toys remains many neighbors' go-to shop in large part because of the Burrows' emphasis on carrying brands like Hape, which crafts all of its products from sustainable materials, as well as their focus on items that encourage imaginative play — from costumes and puppets to science kits and cooperative board games.
Harry explained the couple's philosophy: "The creativity needs to come from inside the child."
That approach is what keeps customers like Beth Czechanski coming back to the shop time and again.
"So many toys these days do everything for the child," said Czechanski, among the fans who turned out for the store's birthday party on Saturday. "A lot of the toys here are full of imagination and possibility."
On buying excursions, Martha noted that it's become "harder and harder to find things that aren't plastic and light up and talk at you."
While acknowledging that there's a place for those sorts of toys — and the shop does carry them — she also believes in providing children with more introspective options.
"In an urban setting, kids need things that are calming and contemplative because the environment is so stimulating," she said.
Though the Burrowses take their responsibility to children seriously, stepping into Timeless Toys is anything but a serious experience.
The shop is scattered with toys that children can actually play with while their parents shop — the train table is particularly popular with toddlers — and grown-ups themselves have been known to bang on mini drum kits or wield a plastic sword.
The only down side to all the playfulness? It eventually has to come to an end.
Employee John Breen, a full-time teacher at nearby McPherson Elementary who works at the shop part-time, said he witnesses meltdowns "five to six times a day" as parents attempt to drag their children out of the store.
"They don't want to leave," he said. "And I don't blame them."