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NATURE & NURTURE IN NYACK

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by Lauren M. Rush

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Imelda McCain was a nurse for 15 years, but she always thought about opening her own business. The birth of her 7-year-old son, Lucas, however, has had a tremendous influence on the direction of that business. “When Lucas was born, everything changed,” she says. “I look at the world differently, and I want Lucas to be acquainted with and aware of the global community that he lives in, not just his local culture and surrounding neighborhood.”

   From that maternal desire, the concept for Playing Mantis, McCain’s store in Nyack, began to take shape.  With support from her husband, Dr. Donald A. McCain, a surgical oncologist in Hackensack, N.J., Imelda began to make her vision a reality.  The store, which opened in September 2006, features “toys and crafts made by hand from around the world inspired by children and mother-nature.  Each toy, each craft, tells a story of a heritage, of a culture, and of a passion with artistic and humane expression.” 

   Originally from Manhattan, McCain and her husband decided to move to the Rockland area because it was convenient for work and because the general approach to life here appealed to them.  They saw an emphasis in Rockland on judgments made on their individual merit, not based on brand-name labels.  They now live in nearby Montvale, N.J., and McCain chose Nyack in particular as the location for her store because the village has “a different feel to it; it is creative, artistic.”  Visiting Playing Mantis, it’s easy to understand what she means.  The whole area is a welcome environment for shops and restaurants that are out of the ordinary, in some ways reminiscent of New York City’s Greenwich Village.

   Stepping into the store, you are immediately transported to another world, a child’s world, but a gentle, fanciful place filled with colorful, natural sights and sounds — not the hard, loud, neon plastic displays in most toy stores.  The walls are decorated with soft, nature-inspired murals and art, and have many beautiful, carved wood shelves, some in the shape of trees.  It feels like you’ve stepped into a fairy woodland, populated by handmade dolls, stuffed animals and wooden puppets, and their exquisitely carved homes.

   As a parent shopping for toys for her son, McCain felt a lack of choice. Despite extensive offerings, she found “a disconnect between the artist and the consumer, between economy and humanity, and between children and nature.”  Toys are purchased for children, but there is little thought about where they originate, how they are made, what is the story behind them, and how does this affect or inspire me and my part of the world?

   Through crafts fairs at her son’s school, McCain was introduced to some of the artists who were creating more unique toys.  From this exposure, she found the way to combine her inherent inclination towards creative self-expression and her maternal search for positive, motivating play options for her son. She and Lucas often spend time together at the little log table and benches in the store, reading or doing crafts together. Lucas also takes piano lessons at the store, surrounded by the fanciful dolls, animals and art his mother gathers from all over the world. McCain’s passion for her store’s concept is readily apparent as she describes some of the merchandise that she carries and the artists who have crafted them. Her obvious admiration of, and personal connection with, each crafter and his or her craft allows her customers to appreciate and understand the creative and productive process involved, and explains the necessary differences in price from mainstream toy stores.  For instance, the large, cuddly stuffed donkeys made from alpaca wool take three months to complete.  Intricately carved wooden tree houses, castles, cottages, farms and animals require hours of painstakingly detailed labor from a music teacher in Hungary, as do the wonderful musical instruments he also fashions from wood.  Other wooden toys and woven crafts are produced by people with disabilities.  The profit from the sales of handmade dolls from Argentina and Africa enable women, the unskilled, and the disabled to support and promote better human conditions in their communities.  Teddy bears, made from recycled fur coats, and books of recycled paper allow children and parents to realize that all material can have more than one purpose and that this helps people and the Earth.  Other merchandise created from re-purposed material includes wall sculptures made from old barn wood, tree blocks made from discarded wood pieces from a managed paper forest, and lamps and shades crafted from vintage shawls, hats, and wedding gowns.

   Workshops in candle dipping, felting, and Fairy House-making are also offered at Playing Mantis, allowing children to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from working and completing something with your hands, while also developing an appreciation for the creative work involved. 

   And Playing Mantis is truly a family business. McCain credits her husband for having the grand vision for the store, recognizing that it would eventually need all three rooms that it occupies.  All of her family has been supportive in helping her realize her dream.  One sister organized the accounting system. Another sister accompanied her on the initial buying expedition, while another stayed with her son during the trip. Her parents also spent time caring for Lucas, while she set up the business.  Her brother currently works at the store, allowing McCain to take her son to school and to pick him up.

   She has been approached about possibly expanding, bringing her concept to other communities. She continues to look for possible additions to her merchandise, plus, as Lucas grows and changes, McCain may introduce other offerings that reflect his new interests. Like children and parents, Playing Mantis is constantly evolving, growing and improving, based upon the needs of the customers it serves and the family that conceived and nurtured it.

Playing Mantis is at 140 Main Street, in Nyack, on the corner of North Franklin Avenue.  For more information, call (845) 358-5670 or go to www.friendlymantis.com.


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