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At play in the toy district

Times Staff Writer

MARIA SMITH admits she “went too wild.” After a midmorning shopping binge in the toy district downtown, her arms were straining from the bulk of multiple plastic bags stuffed with Marvel coloring books and blinking necklaces, tentacled rubber balls and Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards, confetti, gift bags and streamers -- all of it purchased for a fraction of what she would have paid at the mall.

“It’s a lot less expensive to come down to L.A. to get everything,” says Smith, a La Mirada mother of two who was gearing up for her daughter’s birthday party later this month. “The party stores come here to buy everything, so why not go where the buyers go?”

A toy district regular, Smith has been braving SigAlert-style traffic congestion, competitive street parking and a colorful skid row-adjacent street scene to buy toys on the cheap for the last 10 years. She isn’t the only one. Predominantly a wholesale district for midrange to low-end stores nationwide, the 12-block area between 3rd and 5th streets (on the north and south) and Los Angeles and San Pedro streets (on the west and east) is also popular with individual bargain hunters.

Every few feet there’s another store so crammed with toys that the aisles are almost impassable, prompting shopkeepers to post “no stroller” signs at the entrances -- and to yell at anyone who breaks the rule. (The yelling is for the most part in English, though English is a second language for most business owners, many of whom are from Asia.)

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The toy district is, to be sure, an intensely urban scene -- one where shoppers jockey for sidewalk space with dolly-wielding workers and down-and-outers asking for change. It’s a place where the smells of hot dogs, urine and car exhaust frequently overlap. It is not a place for the faint of heart, but it may be just the ticket for adventurous shoppers looking for off-brand versions of popular toys, or for items in bulk.

Stores selling merchandise with popular TV and television characters are everywhere, but buyer beware. They may or may not be licensed.

“In any of the toy districts around the country, if one is walking down the street and sees stores or manufacturers who one would not normally associate with a Sesame Street Workshop ... or any of the other companies that produce toys,” the products might be unauthorized, says Steve Weinberg, an intellectual property attorney in Santa Monica who’s litigated a number of cases involving toys.

According to Weinberg, copyright infringement is “at least as prevalent in the toy industry as it is in fashion, if not more so.”

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Though shoppers may occasionally see what appears to be the exact same item as they’d find at a well-known retailer, more typically they’ll find a clone or a knockoff.

WHILE there’s no guarantee of exact discounts, one thing is clear: Shopping in the toy district is far cheaper than at the mall. There are no collectible Barbies or Tony Hawk skateboards, but there are plenty of 25-cent stuffed puppies and party hats and toy cars.

Walking from shop to shop on a recent morning, a random survey of goods included $15 Mr. Incredible backpacks and $9 Dora the Explorer blankets, $5 remote-control cars and $3 fighter planes, $10 talking dolls and $150 gas-powered pocket bikes.

Those are retail prices offered to individual shoppers. Outside merchants (who later re-sell the items at higher prices) get even better deals, but not all stores cater to both. Many post signs saying they are wholesale only, meaning they sell their items only to other stores. Others are wholesale and retail, but there are no hard and fast rules. It’s best to ask or -- even better -- approach the store owner with a mound of products and a wallet brimming with cash.

“Money is money to us,” says Jeff Tsai, sales coordinator for Victory Toys, a 15-year-old business on Wall Street that sells to individuals and retail stores.

This month alone, Victory will sell 400,000 toys, Tsai says. Like most other stores in the district, Victory purchases its toys -- MP3-player sports cars, pink plastic castles and vinyl dolls, for example -- directly from factories in China.

“Quality’s actually pretty good now,” Tsai says. “It has upgraded for the past six years. Before, when people hear ‘China,’ they’re like, ‘Oh, no.’ But everything comes from China. If you go to Toys R Us and look at the back of the box, most items will say ‘Made in China.’ ”

What’s different about the toys downtown is that most of them are unfamiliar brands to shoppers who are used to browsing the big-box stores. They are brands such as Potex, which makes the Jam Drum drum machine, and Gealex, maker of the Electronic Secret Code Beauty Case that plays a “magical tune” when opened. At VF Toys, on Wall Street, those items retail for $16 and $6, respectively.

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Wander across the street to Character Kids and you’ll find an emporium of loot bearing the images and names of all the day’s most popular animated TV and movie characters. In the front of the well-lighted store are Hello Kitty hat, scarf and glove sets ($6.50), Wiggles cuddle pillows ($14), Cinderella alarm clocks ($10) and Winnie-the-Pooh wallets ($6). In the back, Batman, Barbie, Elmo and hundreds of other cartoon-driven kid backpacks sell for $15 to $18.

A couple of doors down at a shop called New Century, Delfina Vasquez, Caroline Quintero and Monica Heredia were negotiating a price break for the 17 Spider-Man and Tinkerbell themed Christmas presents they were buying for a class of preschoolers. The trio of Montebello moms had $500 of fundraising money to assemble a collection of toys, including a backpack, blanket, umbrella, hat, gloves and stationery set for each child. At New Century, they haggled the backpack price down to $10.50 and the blankets to $8 apiece.

“We negotiate,” Quintero says. “When we walk in, we get one price and we say, ‘Well, what about per dozen?’ And then they lower a price a little.”

It was Quintero who knew to come to the toy district. Her sister has 13 kids, and she often shops for presents there.

“When you’re talking about quantities, it’s easier to buy by the dozen,” says Quintero, who’ll be back to the toy district before Christmas to pick up gifts for her nieces and nephews. “If you’re just shopping for a couple people, I’m not going to come out here, but I know I’m not going to get the best deal if I shop somewhere else.”

IT’S the deals that draw customers -- and not just for toys. Contrary to the district’s name, only 60% to 70% of the stores sell toys. The rest peddle everything from live birds and Buddha figurines to lingerie, electronics, cooking gear and steering-wheel covers. And that’s just inside the stores. There are plenty of street vendors as well, hustling watches, toe socks and suspiciously cheap DVDs displayed on cardboard boxes. Then there are the transient sellers hawking jewelry out of black plastic bags, flashing DVDs from inside rumpled suit coats, peddling wilted roses from shopping carts.

The district is also home to a portion of downtown’s homeless population.

“We’re on the border of skid row,” says Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a nonprofit group representing business owners in the area. “All of us downtown have a stake in finding a solution to the problem.”

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Since 1999, property owners in the toy district have been funding additional security and sanitation services. The CCEA is also in talks with city officials to improve traffic and parking conditions. Streets in the area are often congested due to narrow streets and poor traffic flow. Parking is also a problem, since shoppers and delivery trucks compete for available street spots and there are few lots. According to Lopez, the CCEA is in the “infancy stage” of developing a shuttle service for shoppers, negotiating with city agencies to work out traffic issues and improve signage to direct drivers to available parking.

The best, i.e. least crowded, time to shop the toy district is Monday through Thursday before noon. Fridays, Saturdays (and Sundays during the holiday season) are “crazy all day,” Lopez says. “We’re no different than any other very, very popular mall. If you can come during off hours, it’s better, but if you want the full experience, just come down whenever.”

In the ‘70s, the toy district was home to half a dozen small wholesalers that sold toys only at the holidays. That started to change in 1979, when the Woo family opened the year-round wholesale company ABC Toys.

“As an immigrant I thought it was a commodity we could get into that crossed culture, that wasn’t limited to doing business with the immigrant community,” says Charlie Woo, a Chinese American who used to run ABC Toys with his brothers and father and now operates the wholesaler Megatoys just east of the toy district.

Woo was right. The wholesale toy business has proven so good that “now, hundreds of merchants can go year-round,” he says. “More people on the other side of the Pacific want to be in toy manufacturing, and more people want to go into business for themselves here, particularly immigrants.”

As if there wasn’t already enough to choose from in the toy district, in the next few years, there will be even more. The space that once housed the Midnight Mission for the homeless, at 4th and Los Angeles streets, will become retail space within three years. And by 2010, the parking lot across the street also will be home to many new stores.

That’s good news for people like Maria Smith, 45, who says she rarely shops at regular stores anymore.

“If you can buy it wholesale, why buy retail?” she asks.

“Here, you’re buying your gifts at three times less the amount, my gosh. If they only knew I spent $30 instead of $100. It’s just amazing.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Taming toy town

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Stores in the Toy District are a mix of wholesalers (selling to merchants), retailers (selling to individuals) and mixes of both. During the holidays, many of them are open seven days a week.

What follows is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of some Toy District stores that sell retail as well as wholesale:

A-4 INDUSTRIES

330 Wall St., No. 4. (213) 613-1848. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Testosterone is the general theme here. An entire wall is devoted to the display of toy guns, from pistols to assault rifles ($2-$20). That’s in addition to the piles of remote-controlled race cars, motorcycles, speedboats, helicopters and tanks ($30 and up).

CASA MANGA

303 Boyd St. (213) 437-0824; www.casamanga.com. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Most items in the Toy District hail from China, but at this large store the specialty is Japanese anime, games and cosplay. This season’s bestsellers: a Naruto DVD box set ($108), Final Fantasy VII poker cards ($4) and the live-action movies “Battle Royale” and “Fighter in the Wind” ($12).

CHARACTER KIDS

420-B Wall St. (213) 626-0221. Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

True to its name, this large shop offers a wide variety of character-driven items for children -- including Spider-Man hat-and-glove sets ($7), Wiggles cuddle pillows ($14), Cinderella alarm clocks ($10-18), Winnie-the-Pooh wallets ($6) and Dora the Explorer umbrellas ($6).

DLT TOYS

320-G S. Wall St. (213) 628-8705. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Whether it’s Elmo, Barney, Mario or the Care Bears, plush toy characters in a variety of sizes are the draw ($2 and up).

JSK INTERNATIONAL INC.

300 E. Wall St. (213) 628-1547. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Wall scrolls, notebooks, three-ring binders and action figures are among the seemingly endless Japanese anime offerings from popular series such as Cowboy Bebop, Rurouni Kenshin, Fullmetal Alchemist and Naruto, among others.

KINNEX

122 Winston St. (213) 623-1717; www.kinnex.com. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

If you’re looking for dolls, this is the place. The large warehouse has more than 2,000 styles, mostly in porcelain ($8 and up) but also in vinyl ($7 and up).

LA PALOMA

325 S. San Pedro St., Suite A-2. (213) 625-0048. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Owner Linda Cho deals in plush toys exclusively. Although you won’t find movie tie-ins, you will find 100-plus hippos, bears, alligators, monkeys, dogs and other animal toys (prices range from $1.50 to $35 per item).

MAGIC BOX

215 E. Boyd. (213) 626-3500. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Double the size of most shops, Magic Box has an especially good selection of girlie stuff for tweens, i.e. lip gloss in the shape of a Cinderella slipper ($1) and lockable diaries (12 for $6).

MAXTRAD CO.

218-A Boyd St. (213) 680-3666. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

This sporting goods shop offers everything from soccer balls ($4-$6) and basketballs ($4) to tricycles ($17-$32), strollers ($13-$24), skateboards ($5-$13) and helmets ($9).

NEW MATRIX

320 Wall St. (213) 625-0321. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Whether it’s BMX bicycles ($15-$25), police-cruiser tricycles ($35-$80) or ATVs ($35-$40), foot-powered ride-on toys are the specialty here.

Q TOYS CORP.

216 Boyd St., No. A. (213) 617-0288. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Roomier than many stores, Q offers a variety of toys, such as a 16-piece cookware set ($6), a Barbie-like “Leila” laptop computer toy ($5) and 106-piece set of Lego-like blocks ($10).

SPAK-INC.

267 S. Los Angeles St. (213) 617-1327; www.spak-inc.com. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Off-brand motorcycles and ATVs from China are what Spak’s all about. The exceptionally clean, Colgate-white showroom stocks 20 styles of gas-powered two- and four-wheelers, including 70-cc to 125-cc dirt bikes ($400-$800), 150-cc to 200-cc ATVs ($800-$1,200) and chopper-style pocket bikes ($200).

TEAM WORK

221-A Boyd St. (213) 229-8989. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Fans of Japanese and Korean characters such as Hello Kitty, Tarepanda, Mashi Maro, Piyo Chan and Pucca may want to stop here for a great selection of themed items, including potato peelers and plates, steering wheel covers, window stickers and wallets. Prices start at $1.

VICTORY TOYS

409 S. Wall St. (213) 613-0468. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.

The largest toy shop on the block, Victory carries a wide variety of toys for every age group and both genders, including MP3 player control cars ($80) and pink plastic castles ($15).

-- Susan Carpenter


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