Originally from New York City, Katherine McHenry first opened Building Blocks toy store in Lincoln Park 15 years ago, but after two years she found a better spot in Lakeview at 3306 N. Lincoln Ave.
Now with a second store in Wicker Park, McHenry exudes the glow of someone who loves what she does. She started her first retail business when she was nine, reselling candy to friends and family.
“I quickly learned about bad credit, theft and all kinds of stuff. But it was my own venture,” she said.
High school and college brought a series of retail jobs until she graduated with an accounting degree and went to Arthur Andersen. She quickly discovered the office life wasn’t for her and decided to dive head first into toys.
She calls Building Blocks, “a more specialty, educational, developmental and fun toy store. So I’m not like a teacher store where it’s all boring, yawn, yawn, workbook, slide rulers and that kind of thing…I love being the mom-and-pop kind of store.”
1. What’s your favorite spot in the neighborhood?
Now that I’m a mom, I love that there’s a Little Gym. Prior to that, and going out: Frasca, the pizzeria and wine bar. I also love that stretch on Roscoe [and Damen] with Kitch’n. I’m an eat-out person, so I love Frasca and Kitch’n.
2. What’s the goofiest thing you’ve seen in the neighborhood?
I don’t know if it was goofy, but it was really cool. I only saw it one time. They had the traveling puppet show. The guy on the bike. I thought that was really cool. Right in front of Wishbone. I probably stood there for twenty minutes watching.
3. If there’s something you would change about the neighborhood, what would it be?
I’d fill up more of the stores south of me. I’d want to see none of the commercial spaces empty. That’s my dream.
In general, whenever I’m driving by a space that’s empty and I try to imagine what would do well there.
What do you think should be there?
This area? The Ark is empty and that’s a huge space. I would love it if a bookstore went in there, or a co-op. Something eclectic. Are you familiar with the Landmark on Clark? It’s a very successful co-op. There’s a lot of different artists, stores, not every shop owner needs to be there. That would bring a lot of different things to the neighborhood.
Or a bookstore. There’s nothing like that in the neighborhood. I know it’s a hard business to keep, so it would have to be something a little more interesting. Maybe a bookstore that offers classes or something that’s a little more learning, development, interactive.
4. What’s different since you first moved here?
When I first came here, the Service Merchandise signage was still on that 24-hour gym/tan place. Wishbone wasn’t here. I was a lonely little guy on the island hoping someone would row up and come and visit.
So I created my business as a destination business back then. I still am. People know I’m here and they come in here. This is their big goal. Maybe Wishbone too.
In their mind they’ve got certain goals, things they’re going to do. I’m one of those destinations.
The neighborhood: now you see lots of people walking by with kids. Families have grown here. Businesses have grown here. It’s kind of like what came first.
Maybe something like me really helped, “Well now the toy store’s here, so oh well we’re going to do another family-friendly business close by.” Things like that.
The businesses are definitely opening and thriving. And families are showing up.
5. Retro On Roscoe or Summer On Southport?
Retro on Roscoe! I love the festival and I also sponsor it. I give them thousands of family bags. With every wristband you buy you also get a family bag. I’ve done that for three summers now.
I love supporting the community and being a part of it. It really ties in with the fact that I love to interact with my customers.