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Originally published December 21, 2012 at 8:31 AM | Page modified December 21, 2012 at 8:31 AM

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Wooden toy shop on Westlake is bustling

Once known as The Giving Tree, now known as Westlake Woodwerk, this shop offers handmade wooden toys.

Seattle Times photographer

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Miles south of the famous North Pole workshops, Marty Jensen fashions two pieces of wood — rosewood and maple — into a toy saw for a child's toolbox.

Jensen started as a volunteer at The Giving Tree in 2006, and learned how to make wooden toys from those around him.

The Giving Tree was started in 1989 by men who lived at The Westlake, an adjoining building owned by the Archdiocesan Housing Authority as a residence for the formerly homeless.

The toy shop was staffed by volunteers and funded by the Archdiocese of Seattle. But about three years ago, when construction along Westlake Avenue cut off access to the storefront and the archdiocese could no longer afford to fund the store, The Giving Tree looked doomed.

Leslie Conti recalls riding her bike down Westlake Avenue and noticing that the shop was about to close. On a whim, she and her husband, Urs Berger, decided to invest in the property.

"The woodworkers were practically in tears," she said. Conti and her husband owned a European shop in Fremont called Eurostyle Your Life. They had been buying toys from The Giving Tree, which fit their business model of showcasing goods made in the United States, Canada and Europe.

So they bought the equipment, leased The Giving Tree space from the archdiocese and moved their shop into Seattle's emerging South Lake Union neighborhood. The shop is now called Westlake Woodwerk.

"We rescued The Giving Tree, and they kind of rescued us," Conti said.

A year ago, they reduced the size of the toy workshop and added Café Suisse, an espresso joint that is fast becoming famous for its Swiss chocolate offerings.

Café Suisse faces the street; its customers are treated to a view of Jensen creating toys or, at this time of year, Christmas ornaments. There is a wireless intercom by a window in the shape of a Swiss cross (Berger is Swiss). "Push button: to speak with toy-maker Marty," it reads.

Jensen credits his youth on a dairy farm for his work ethic and 13 years as an equipment operator at Boeing for his focus. He says his crowning achievement as a toymaker is a working mobile construction crane fashioned from mahogany.

Jensen and his woodworking partner John Webster were hired by Conti and Berger when they took over The Giving Tree space.

"What a great way to give back," said Jensen, who credits the archdiocese for helping him get back on his feet after enduring some rough years.

"When I came here, I just felt so welcome and so comfortable," said Jensen. "I really wish I would have found this place years ago. I'm having the time of my life, really. I've heard people say that before, but this is it, right here."

Bettina Hansen: bhansen@seattletimes.com

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