Evett’s Model Shop has gotten unusual requests over its 71 years of operation, but few have been as weird as the one in January from YouTube car comedy channel Donut Media: Help a Bugatti built from Lego bricks go really fast, maybe even set a speed record.
The Santa Monica store, one of Southern California’s few remaining model and hobby shops, took on the job. Employee Luke Orrin added a custom drivetrain, radio-controlled electronics and even magnets on the doors to keep them closed when the pedal hit the metal.
The tricked-out one-eighth-scale model “crashed in the most beautiful way” during the speed test but not before topping 40 mph, which the crew figured was the equivalent of 320 mph for a full-size Bugatti, according to the video.
The well-placed shout-out from Donut Media’s video, which has garnered nearly 800,000 views, is just one of the many ways that Evett’s has tried to keep ahead of heavy online competition from big discount distributors and Amazon.com. Evett’s has weathered all sorts of toy fads and endured the death of founder Colby Evett six years ago at age 92.
But a steep rent increase proved too much for Evett’s widow, Yvonne, 85, who plans to close the shop on Wednesday. Loyal customers, drawn by the community vibe and Yvonne Evett’s baked goods on the counter, are mounting an online fundraising campaign to help the store reopen somewhere else.
“That one got a lot of traction, no pun intended,” quipped Orrin about the Donut Media video.
“This is one of the many things about this job that I’m going to miss,” said the former Marine who has built and repaired radio-controlled cars and planes for Evett’s since 2012. “There’s a 10-year-old kid inside me who is having a temper tantrum about it.”
Evett’s is the quintessential neighborhood hobby and toy shop: small, a little dim and packed with things that were difficult to find elsewhere, at least before the internet intervened.
In the $20-billion toy and hobby store industry, independent operators have been disappearing because “competition from discount department stores and e-commerce channels has absorbed much of the increased demand for industry products … as these operators are able to offer low prices and one-stop-shop convenience,” according to a 2018 report by business research firm IBISWorld.
Retail expert Dick Outcalt described the problem as “the cloud of Amazon.”
“Why should I deal with this small local shop when I can do one-stop shopping,’’ said Outcalt, a principal at Outcalt & Johnson Retail Strategists.
Orrin said he and fellow employee Gene Duarte turned to YouTube to promote the store with step-by-step model builds, unboxings and detailed product reviews. They have been active on other social media and tried selling through EBay for a time, but online sales never seemed feasible for such a small shop.
What’s more, Orrin said, the customer base has changed, with buyers less likely to want to spend the time building their radio-controlled vehicle. “They just want the finished product and the controller,” he said.
On top of the toll from e-commerce, Evett’s has been hit hard by the increasing cost of Westside real estate. As Santa Monica home prices have soared, so has commercial rent. The average monthly retail rent in Santa Monica is $6.58 a square foot, up 75% from $3.77 a square foot in 2006, according to research by CBRE.
Evett’s pays $4,200 monthly for its 1,100-square-foot space, up from $1,200 a month in 2012, Evett said. The last increase was too much for the shop to handle, and Evett couldn’t find anything affordable, even for a downsized store.
“There were over 100 vacant stores in Santa Monica that we looked at,” she said. “The rent everywhere in Santa Monica was too high.”
At Evett’s, customers could find that elusive color of brush or spray paint that no other store seemed to have. It had balsa wood gliders, some of the latest radio-controlled cars, planes, and the parts to keep many early and older models running. It had collectible toys like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and the flying saucer from ABC’s prime-time science-fiction drama “The Invaders” in their original boxes.
Evett’s was one of the pioneers of radio-controlled cars and planes, built with the expertise of Navy veteran Colby Evett, who was also an aircraft mechanic. Post-World War II Santa Monica was home to aerospace firms such as Douglas Aircraft Co., which later became part of McDonnell Douglas Corp.
Yvonne Evett started helping out at the shop in 2000 after she became Evett’s second wife. She said her husband obtained a ham radio license and spent five years refining the technology to fly an airplane remotely, using a radio signal controller.
“He told me he used to have controllers stacked 4 feet deep, awaiting repairs,” Evett said. “Those were the busiest days of the business, before I came along.”
The store opened in 1948 on Pico Boulevard, moving to Ocean Park Boulevard in 1955, Evett said. The store did so well that her husband retired from Douglas Aircraft at age 35 to work his retail dream full time.
Longtime customers are upset.
“I’m very sad to find out that this joint is closing,” said Neil Cohen, a writer and illustrator who visited the store last week.
“I brought my kid here all the time. I come in every couple of months,” he said. “The people who work here are so friendly. The family has been great. This is a real piece of Southern California history.”
Some of the store’s biggest supporters have refused to give up. One of them is Joshua Wexler, whose title at entertainment company Pure Imagination Studios in Van Nuys is “chief executive of fun.”
Wexler and others are launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000 to allow the store to continue at another location. A previous Indiegogo effort didn’t reach its $75,000 goal, and all the money was returned to contributors.
Although Pure Imagination Studios specializes in virtual reality and special effects, Wexler said there is a value in building something with your own hands.
“I’ve been doing RC [remote-controlled] cars and models with my sons and daughter for years and we’re here at Evett’s almost every weekend,” Wexler said. “Having that physical connection and touch, working on a RC car, creates a connection and a bond with others that I don’t think you can get in a computer game.”
The store has created strong emotional bonds with employees too.
Orrin, 33, credits the store with helping him adjust after a stint overseas in the Marine Corps.
“Yesterday, we had a customer who’s been coming in since he was in elementary school, getting ready to go to high school. He’s upset, asking, ‘Where am I going to get what I need, who am I going to talk to?’” Orrin said. “When he walked out and the door chime rang, I realized that might be the last time he’d ever be here. That’s really sad.”