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Retired teacher turns auto repair shop into kid heaven

Lucy Elliott has turned a once-dingy, old, auto repair shop in south Minneapolis, into a brightly colored play space for kids and their parents.

MINNEAPOLIS – Lucy Elliott remembers her first walk through the old auto repair shop. Grease coated the floors. Mufflers still hung from the trusses.

“When we walked out my words were, ‘Maybe if I was 10 years younger,” Lucy said.

Children in the Longfellow neighborhood can be grateful Lucy had a change of heart.

Today the once-dingy, old, auto repair shop is a brightly colored play space for kids and their parents.

Belle's ToolBox was opened in an old auto repair shop. (Photo: Boyd Huppert, KARE 11)

“It's kind of a wild little place,” Lucy says.

Belle’s ToolBox opened its doors last year and quickly became a favorite stop for neighborhood parents and their children.

“This is kind of ideally what I’d want my own home to be like, that environment you don’t feel afraid to spill something,” said Nancy Richter who made her first trip to Belle’s with her two children, 4-year-old Imogen and 1-year-old Magnolia.

Nancy Richter plays with her four-year-old daughter Imogen. (Photo: Boyd Huppert, KARE 11)

A myriad of activities greets children who enter the garage, all geared toward interaction between parents and kids.

Use of cell phones is prohibited at the ToolBox. “Stealing time” from children is how Lucy views smartphones. Parents wanting to use her space, should expect to be on the floor with their kids – phones buttoned in their pockets.

“I'm just setting the stage and hoping people kind of get it,” Lucy said.

Lucy began talking about such place two decades ago, while teaching in Illinois. But dreams became reality when Lucy and her husband Mark moved to the Minnesota to be closer to their grandchildren.

PHOTOS: Belle's ToolBox

“For years Lucy would say I want to do this thing and I would say, ‘Show me a business plan, we already don't have any money,” Mark said.

He added, “That means, ‘Go away, don't bother me.’”

Lucy persisted, eventually convincing Mark to go along with her plan.

During their move to Minneapolis the couple downsized their home, then took equity from their sale and purchased the garage.

“This is the one thing she wanted to do with her life,” Mark said. “I just wanted her to have that – that’s all.”

The name “Belle’s ToolBox” is nod to Lucy’s mom, who provided for her young children a wealth of experiences. “My mom she was like, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, as long as you take care of each other,’” Lucy said.

A Belle's ToolBox customer dives into the "Contraption Box." (Photo: Boyd Huppert, KARE 11)

Don’t expect to find Legos in the ToolBox. Lucy prefers toys that leave more to a child’s imagination. She’s especially fond of her “contraption box,” a tub filled with hoses, funnels and an assortment of other oddball objects. “So, the child has to figure it out,” she says.

Besides, Lucy says, most kids already have Legos at home.

What they might not have is an easel with paint ready to go, or a book-making machine with Lucy providing instructions.

Admission to the garage is free, though Lucy suggests a donation of $3.00 to $5.00. She has no aspirations of turning a profit. Lucy says she’ll be happy to if she earns enough to pay her property taxes.

It’s not about the money.

“Some people in our position would maybe buy a second house on a golf course or a condo elsewhere or something,” Lucy reasons. “That wasn’t something we were particularly interested in.”

Instead, Lucy has found her happiness in the children who surround her.

For more information on Belle's Toolbox go to their website: http://www.belles-toolbox.org/