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Store Sells Gifts for the Sight-Impaired

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cool bathroom scale that shouts out when you’ve gained a few extra pounds. A jazzy TV remote control that you’ll never misplace. An amazing automatic needle-threader that always finds the eye.

The shelves of one Hollywood shop are lined with these and other holiday gifts that are seldom seen elsewhere.

In fact, many are designed not to be seen. The unique merchandise at the Vistas store is for those who have lost--or are losing--their eyesight.

Operated for more than two decades by the Braille Institute, the shop at 741 N. Vermont Ave. stocks more than 300 items to make life easier for its customers.

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There’s a check-writing guide to help the visually impaired pay their bills. It slips over checkbooks and uses sturdy plastic windows to show the “date,” “payable to” and “signature” lines. At $1.95, it’s worth checking out.

And there’s the “Say When” liquid-level indicator for coffee drinkers. It’s a tiny battery-operated device that hangs on the side of the cup and keeps coffee (or juice) from overflowing when being poured. A buzzer warns that the cup is nearly full when liquid touches its sensor. It sells for $11.

For bridge and poker players. there are $4 packs of regular-size playing cards that are marked with jumbo inch-high numbers and suit symbols. Or oversized $7 cards whose 7-inch faces are imprinted in Braille.

With its wood-accented showroom walls, glitzy display cases and tastefully arranged merchandise racks, Vistas looks like a typical high-end mall store. But it is anything but typical for shoppers such as Eileen Brenes.

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It wasn’t long ago that Brenes, 24, of West Covina was totally blind from diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Multiple surgical procedures have partially restored her sight, although she says the fix may not be permanent.

So Brenes knows from experience just how valuable something like the $8 “Cut n’ Scoop” can be. It’s a funnel-shaped cutting board that steers chopped tomatoes and diced onions straight into a kitchen bowl with no spills.

Previously, Brenes purchased two “talking” devices at the shop: a wristwatch and alarm clock that announce the time. The other day, she was picking out a Christmas present for her fiance, whose vision is impaired by retinitis pigmentosa.

“A person might think this is a novelty store,” Brenes said. “But it’s much more than that. There are very valuable things here for people who have different visual needs. Things like playing cards in Braille are important to a person who doesn’t want to have to wait for someone to read the card to them.”

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At a nearby counter displaying $85 tape players that can handle special “talking book” tapes as well as conventional music cassettes, Hollywood Hills resident Linda Newsom had stacked a pile of Christmas gifts. They are for her mother-in-law, a Tennessee resident whose eyesight recently failed.

“It happened almost overnight,” Newsom said. “She only has peripheral vision now. I’m trying to make her life easier.”

On the other side of the store, Joan Anckle was perusing the shelves. She was a medical assistant in UCLA student health services before optic atrophy ended her career. In the past, she has purchased things such as a $25 radio that also plays the sound from television broadcasts.

“I was amazed when I found what they have here,” said the Ladera Heights resident. “I’m not blind yet. But I want to be ready, just in case. There are so many things I’ll still be able to do if it happens.”

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Vistas store branches are open year-round at Braille Institute centers in Anaheim, Rancho Mirage, Santa Barbara and San Diego, but the Christmas season is especially important for its customers. Officials say shoppers are surprised by the variety, happy to find thick-lined, $4 writing pads for sale alongside $3,000 talking computers and video equipment that magnifies print in newspapers and books.

Wristwatches with numbers in Braille ($60) are available, but more popular are computerized talking watches at $11 and up, said store merchandise-buyer Jorge Marquez.

Also in stock are dot-punching Braille writing machines priced at about $700, as well as a $300 “talking wallet” that can tell a $1 bill from a $20, said store manager Melva Crump.

Among the most popular items are the $79 computerized talking bathroom scale, the huge, barbell-shaped $30 “Big Button Remote” that controls TV sets and the nifty $3 automatic needle-threader.

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There also are $4 oven mitts that protect hands--and arms--from accidental burns. Metal rings that keep fried eggs from spreading all over the skillet are also priced at $4. Deep plastic plates that minimize food spills are $6. A skillet-scraping spatula that fans open to three times the width of a regular spatula sells for $7.

Little things like that can mean a lot to the blind and sight-impaired, including growing numbers of people with macular degeneration. They are apprehensive about losing their independence to failing eyesight, said Craig Darr, who teaches kitchen techniques to students at the Braille Institute.

“Some of the newly blind are appreciative. Others are a little angry,” Darr said. “They are full of a lot of emotions.”

That’s why operators of the Vistas stores promise that shelf space will always be available for whatever useful gadget manufacturers cook up next.

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