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Posted on Thu. Aug. 21, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Wisconsin small town full of delights, from music to toys

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Stevens Point is a comfortable, small college town in central Wisconsin. Located a couple of hours north of Madison, this town is home to the American Suzuki Institute, the oldest Suzuki summer music-training program in the United States.

In the late summer weeks, you can see hundreds of parents and children racing around the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, violin cases in hand, trying to get to their next class. Or maybe you'll see cars drive past with canoes strapped on top — this is lake country, and finding a good launching spot isn't too hard.

Regardless of your purpose in coming to central Wisconsin, you should take a look through the town. If you decide to walk downtown, it will be like stepping into a piece of Andy Griffith's Mayberry. It's an eclectic mix of old and new. Downtown Main Street has an old, pillared bank front (now Jim Laab's Music store — check out the rows of pianos for sale). Habibi's Gyros and Kabob House is a cross between “The Arabian Nights” and Wal-Mart (filling food but nothing too elaborate). A bookstore, a bead gallery and shop, and a Fox movie theater are also here.

But the real draw is Gepetto's Workshop.

In the store's front window, bears, a giraffe and other stuffed toys in poodle skirts dance beside shiny chrome tables. One tough grizzly bear is decked out in a leather jacket. And the juke box in the back is bright and shiny, as though it's really cranking out popular hits from years gone by.

Inside the store, a different type of music reigns. Gentle guitar and mellow voices sing kids tunes, like the Raffi recordings of the early 1990s. Stuffed toys are everywhere, and a feeling of timelessness takes over. As the sign over the door says, “We believe in Santa Claus” — and this shop has to be where Santa gets his ideas.

Dolls and collectible stuffed animals are in the front part of the store, safe behind glass cabinet doors. More stuffed toys are posed above the cabinets and within easy reach of a helpful adult. How about a life-sized Dalmatian? Or a poodle with perfectly fluffy fur? Gepetto's specializes in giant stuffed animals, from dogs to elephants. (Sorry, the elephants are big, but not quite life-sized.)

Kids tables are everywhere so people can experiment with sand sets, trains and cars. If your tastes run more toward the domestic arts, check out the tiny kitchen supplies, from toy fruit young chefs can cut to an adorable kitchen set, complete with a cereal bowl-sized spaghetti strainer and spatula. Dress-up costumes, hand puppets and rocking horses are here, too.

According to the cashier, shop owner Bonnie Brown opened Gepetto's more than 30 years ago. She wanted to have “a real toy store.”

“Our toys are the timeless classics — you know, old fashioned,” said the cashier, who didn't want to be named.

In late July, during the Suzuki Institute, the door was constantly opening, admitting children and parents. The clerk offered to stockpile purchases behind the counter, in case parents were buying gifts. Kids were having trouble deciding exactly what to purchase.

“Mom, do I have enough money …?” one child asked.

After making purchases at Gepetto's Workshop, you take one last look at the antique glass lamps and the finely tiled floor. Your eyes linger over the dolls behind their glass doors, or the perfectly posed toy bears.

And then, it's back out into the sunshine, where a Toyota Camry with a canoe on top is parallel parking. Yes, this is Stevens Point.

nsfeatures@news-sentinel.com


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