'R Us' Retailing Moniker May Be Getting Out of Hand

This column is by Times staff writers Paul Feldman and Staffannie Fedunak

American entrepreneurs have never been shy about taking a good idea and beating it into the ground. Take designer jeans. Or racquetball clubs. Or films about farming.

In the South Bay, one such trend that appears to be thriving these days is the use of the letters "R Us" in the names of businesses.

Once confined to the domain of the highly successful nationwide Toys "R" Us chain, the usage is proliferating on shops of several shapes and sizes.

There may still be more Acmes (driving schools, mattress factories, etc.) and A-1s (lawn sprinklers, imported groceries, sandblasting and stucco, etc.). But in the last year or so, firms including Spas R Us and Hub Caps "R" Us have opened for business locally, joining the ranks of gardening, towing and lighting outlets that display "R Us" monikers.

"Some people giggle a little when you tell them (the name), but people remember it because of the other businesses with the same name," said Jeff Yirak, proprietor of the large Lawndale spa shop, which sells and supplies parts for a wide variety of heated outdoor tubs.

"I don't know if it helps us," added Yirak, who runs his operation on the former site of a store called Spa World. "(But people) can kind of relate and remember it because of Toys 'R' Us and Lamps R Us."

Frank Spatola, owner of the Redondo Beach-based hub cap business, said he has no illusions about expanding like the toy chain. But the name can't hurt, he indicated, since it provides better name recognition than, say, Frank's Hubcaps.

"R-Us is already painted in people's minds, so they'll remember it," said Spatola, 24.

At Towing R Us in Gardena, dispatcher Les Cortenbach said he has received calls from people asking for Cabbage Patch dolls.

"I get CHP calls and they say, 'Toys "R" Us, huh?' and I say we'll be rolling out stuffed animals to you in a minute," he said.

Back in New Jersey, at the corporate headquarters of Toys "R" Us, the use of R Us is no laughing matter.

"In most cases, they are using the mark to trade off on the fame and reputation that Toys 'R' Us enjoys," said Paul Fields, the firm's outside counsel.

At last count, at least 300 different infringers have opened shop around the nation, Fields said, including a massage parlor called Angels R Us.

Many of the businesses are "innocent infringers" whose owners don't realize the problem and agree to change their name after a letter or two from Toys "R" Us, Fields said.

In other cases, Toys "R" Us has wound up taking the issue to court or to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington.

That includes the case of Southern California-based Lamps R Us, he said, in which Toys "R" Us has succeeded in reaching an accord whereby the lighting firm will phase out the use of its current name.

To small retailers like Spatola, such a ruckus seems silly, since the similar names can only help to publicize the toy chain.

"I see no harm, only better coming out of it," he said.

But Fields counters: "Not when you can't control it and have no idea what kind of service or goods are being offered."

Besides being a ticklish subject, it is also a matter of technicalities. In the names of local businesses, the Rs face forward--but in the toy company's name, the R faces backward.

Still, says Fields, "When someone answers the phone saying 'R Us,' you don't know if it's backward or forward."

Unusual Angel Plays a Piano

"I want to show you an angel," the hospital therapist said. "No, really, she's a real-life angel." Sitting at the piano, surrounded by a circle of elderly convalescing patients beginning to warm up to the music, was the "angel"--Opal Wilkinson. She was pounding away the sadness and loneliness of her audience to the tune of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

She is 88 and nearly blind, but she doesn't let that stop her. In fact, Mrs. Wilkinson says playing for the patients helps her forget her own troubles and the nagging back pain she has had for years.

She plays at three local convalescent hospitals every week, Bay Harbor Rehabilitation Center, Spring Retirement Hotel and Mira Costa Convalescent Hospital, and she spends Fridays at the Palos Verdes Community Arts Assn. where, despite her poor eyesight, she helps with the bookkeeping. Last year she was honored by the mayor of Palos Verdes Estates as that city's first senior citizen of the year for her community work.

"I'm not an angel yet," Mrs. Wilkinson said, smiling. "I feel that I'm doing something worthwhile, that I'm not just waiting for the old reaper. I'm ready, but I'm still doing something to brighten up their lives a little."

To those who are treated to her concerts every week, the volunteer may seem like an emissary from heaven. She began helping others in 1977 when she joined the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, RSVP.

Because her eyesight is so bad, she has to rely on rides from others. She also has to memorize all the music she plays, about 200 old-time favorites.

"I don't remember words," Mrs. Wilkinson said. "I remember music. To get me to practice, my mother told me music is good for the soul."

And she can prove that. As patients gather or are positioned in wheelchairs around the piano, they begin to clap or smile. The effects of her music are contagious, spreading from the patients to the hospital staff, to Mrs. Wilkinson herself.

"It makes me happy just to see them smile," she said later during an interview in her Palos Verdes apartment. "The music brings back memories of their youth."

"There have been times when I didn't think I would be able to get out of that chair," she said pointing to an armchair in the corner. "But then I thought, no, I can't disappoint them.'

She lives alone. She came to the South Bay in 1973 at age 76, leaving her hometown of Homewood, Ill., with memories of running her husband's business after he died, and raising four fatherless children through the Depression.

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