Toy Store Defies Odds in an Age of Giants

Against all odds, counter to every retail industry trend and despite the presence of a giant new competitor a Frisbee toss away, Kip’s Toyland will be open for business today at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, just as it has been for 58 straight holiday shopping seasons.

In that time, Kip’s has survived the rise of malls.

It has beaten back the threat of national toy store chains.

And it has stood its ground, like David, against an invasion of mega-store Goliaths.


“I’m not anxious to retire,” says Irvin “Kip” Kipper, who blew past 80 many moons ago.

Kipper got into the toy business when there were no plastic toys, no Toys R Us and no credit cards. He opens the door of his shop six days a week, the same as he has since 1945, and people who first came in as kids now bring in their grandchildren.

To help illustrate Kip’s latest challenge, let me draw you a map.

Exit his quaint little funnery at the old world Farmers Market, turn right, go about 50 yards, and you’ll see Mother Goose or a toy soldier working shoppers at the Disney-fied Grove shopping center.

Kip is up against Mother Goose, for crying out loud, who lures customers into a dazzling two-story FAO Schwartz toy emporium that features a spectacular carousel and stuffed animals the size of automobiles.

“I’ve never set foot in it,” Kip tells me.

Come on, you’re kidding.

“I just never saw any need to,” he says.

He does his thing, they do theirs. And guess what.

Not only has Kip managed to hold his own against FAO, but he might outlast it. FAO came out of bankruptcy last year and has continued teetering, partly because of competition from the likes of Target and Wal-Mart.

Part of Kip’s success is that he’s stuck with the same strategy that’s worked for him since a quarter of a century before the first Apollo mission.

If your shopping list includes the latest flash-in-the-pan toy creation or the hottest video game rage, skip Kip’s. He gave up on electronic toys after customers came back to him with broken Pong games, and he’s stuck with mostly classics ever since.

Lincoln Logs. Tinker Toys. Slinky. Monopoly. Pickup Sticks. Hand puppets. Balsawood gliders. Mr. Potato Head. Etch-a-Sketch. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm. Wood burning kits. Yahtzee. Spirograph. Parchesi. Jump rope. Candyland. Battleship. Legos. Carom board (100-plus games in one). Whiffle balls. Yo-yos.

“I raised two boys and knew the value of playing with building blocks and putting the two small blocks together to equal the height of one block,” says Kip, who as a tyke squeezed all the fun he could out of stacking and rearranging the wooden produce boxes his dad kept in the backyard.

“I always liked games that required more creativity, and I saw the value of interacting with a child when you’re playing board games.”

So how’d he end up making it his business? Kip said he had just returned from the Air Corps in World War II, and he and his wife, Gertrude, “felt young at heart.” So they bought a little hole-in-the-wall toy shop in the old Town and Country Village where the Kmart is today.

Several years later, they moved across the street to the low-slung string of shops known as the Dell. Those shops were bulldozed a few years ago, but Kip’s survived, moving to its current spot in the Farmers Market.

Kip is an elfish man with wild, bushy eyebrows that appear to be battery-operated. I sat him down outside his store and asked him to give up more of his trade secrets, and he shrugged modestly.

He said he stocks lots of toys that come in small packages, so Farmers Market tourists can tote them easily. Lots of items are in the $12 to $19 range, so everyone can afford a decent gift. And he doesn’t like violent or offensive toys.

But the real difference is something I can explain better than Kip can, because he hasn’t been to the big toy store at the Grove.

I walked in past Mother Goose, under the carousel, and looked for someone who might know something about Lincoln Logs. The first clerk told me she didn’t know if they had any. The second clerk told me they had them, but she wasn’t sure where.

Kip will not only take you to the Lincoln Logs in his store, but if you ask, he’ll build you a cabin.

“I’d say he’s pretty much blessed with the gift of selling toys,” says 18-year-old Giorgio Ortiz, who came in as a shopper a year ago and now works at Kip’s Toyland with Dez Zagha, Ralph Cotton and Tina Flemming. “He explains things to customers and he’ll give a demo of each toy.”

Just like he’s doing now with one of his favorite toys -- Magnadoodle.

“You see what I mean?” Kip asks me. “You can take these pieces and build whatever you want.”

In half a minute, he whips together a little merry-go-round that spins when he dangles it by its steeple.

At 87, he holds it up for me and smiles like a kid.

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.