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Kip's Toyland in the Farmers Market began with a WWII ex-POW's need for fun

The month was October.

The year was 1945.

The young man was Irvin Kipper, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who was back home in Los Angeles, itching to start his own business.

"He wanted to do something pleasant," says Don Kipper, Irvin's son.

Why?

Because on his 26th combat mission over Italy, Irvin Kipper's B-17 took heavy enemy fire. He and the rest of the crew bailed, parachuted safely into Bologna, and spent the next 7.5 months in a prisoner of war camp.

Kipper's letters home, to his wife, Gertrude, never mentioned any of that.

"He didn't want me to know he was having any problems," Gertrude says.

Even when he was safely home, Kipper didn't talk much about what he'd been through. He was of the generation that kept the stories locked away, and he was eager to move on.

Kipper bought a store across the street from the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax. The store sold flags, and Kipper soon added balloons. They were a big hit, because rubber had been rationed during the war to support production of military equipment.

Then came the Slinky, and Kipper stocked that, adding board games and new toys as they were invented. As Don Kipper explains it, year-round toy stores were rare. You bought toys in department stores during the holidays, or you might find a toy aisle at a hardware store.

But Irvin Kipper wanted to see smiling kids 12 months a year. He moved Kip's Toyland across the street in 1956 to the portion of the Farmer's Market known as the Dell, where it became a local favorite and a tourist curiosity.

"Growing up, if we wanted some Dad time, we worked in the store," said Don, speaking of himself and his brother, Robert. "My first memory of it was at 9 years old, when I was charged with tying strings on balloons."

The store moved to its current location in the Farmer's Market in 2000, and last Sunday, Irvin Kipper's creation celebrated a magical milestone.

Kip's Toyland has turned 70.

Irvin Kipper is about to turn 99.

He and Gertrude have been married 76 years.

And a third-generation Kipper, Lily, now works in the store with her father and occasionally her grandfather, which means Kip's Toyland could last another 70 years.

"The guy came back from World War II and wanted to do something fun with his life," said Laurence Cohen, who used to hang out at Kip's after school in the early 1960s and attended the party Sunday. "A toy store. You couldn't think of anything more fun than that."

When the bell at Hancock Park Elementary rang, Cohen and his pals hoofed over to Kip's Toyland to fiddle with the yo-yos and tops and try their luck on the hula hoops. They'd kill an hour or 90 minutes in the store and never seemed to wear out their welcome with the owner, who was known to his customers simply as Kip.

"I remember a welcoming environment," said Cohen.

When I first wrote about Kipper in 2003, my angle was his knack for survival. A giant FAO Schwarz had just opened a short stroll from his store, but he was undaunted, believing that classic toys and personal service, with free gift-wrapping, would give him the edge.

The FAO Schwarz went out of business, and Kip's Toyland endured, selling Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoy sets and Carrom Game Boards, with Kip himself offering demonstrations to customers who didn't see the full possibilities of a creative mind.

Then came Amazon and the rest of the Internet challenge; Kip's Toyland, unfazed, is gearing up for its 70th holiday shopping season.

"We still run it the same way. When we sell something, we peel a sticker off ... and write down what we sold," said Lily, who got out of college several years ago with no plan to join the family business.

But her father, Don, wondered if she wanted to give it a try for a while. Lily has been running the store with her dad for four years now, and her grandfather visits the store every couple of weeks to see how it's going.

"We don't have a computer, and the cash register is like an adding machine," said Lily, who's come to appreciate her grandfather's insistence on sticking with what works. "We don't sell anything that plugs in, and the most high-tech we get is a remote control car with batteries."

When she was younger, Lily says, she asked her grandfather why he didn't sell video games. Some of them were too violent, he said, and he didn't approve.

Someone else could sell that stuff. Irvin Kipper was sticking with Etch A Sketch.

"It's sad when a kid walks in looking at their mom's phone, or their own phone, and is completely missing the point that they're in a toy store," said Lily.

Something tells me Kip's Toyland will survive this challenge, too.

As for Kip, names and dates are hard to keep straight these days, and his visits to the store are brief and less frequent.

"We're doing the best we can," said Gertrude, 96, who drove her husband to the anniversary party Sunday.

When Kip saw his family and well-wishers, the fog cleared a bit and the significance of the day gradually became clear to him, Gertrude says.

The World War II Air Force pilot enjoyed some cake and ice cream, and then had another helping, as shoppers filed through the store he started in the month of October in the year 1945.

steve.lopez@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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