The concept of fun may be as old as the human race, but a visit into
Jennifer Johnston's Balboa Island store gives visitors the impression
that she invented it.
Our Gang's General Store, a long, narrow shop on Marine Avenue, is
jam-packed with every conceivable type of toy, game and novelty. A
shopper can find retro amusements such as sea monkeys and Rock 'Em
Sock 'Em Robots, classics such as crayons and kites, and popular new
toys like Wham-O's Battle Boogie, a boogie board with a swiveling
nozzle that aquatic playmates can use to squirt each other.
This month the store is celebrating its 30th anniversary under
Johnston's ownership and its 15th anniversary as a toy store. When
Johnston took over the store in 1974 she sold plants and antiques,
but the main focus was pottery made by her husband's brother, Michael
Ezzell of Laguna Beach.
As consumer trends changed, Johnston decided to segue into toys.
"We've always done a little bit of everything," she said. "We have
no real agenda for our buying ... so we don't really consider
ourselves a toy store."
Mixed in with all the toys is a selection of outdoor decorative
flags, strings of novelty lights and pirate-related merchandise.
Johnston prides herself on the store's personal service. She'll wrap
and ship gifts, and the store makes deliveries.
"We're kind of personal friends of Santa Claus and the Easter
bunny, so we help a lot," said Jill Piazza, a 15-year store employee
who started as a devoted customer.
Customers seem to like the store as much as Piazza.
"I have a lot of grandchildren, so this place is fascinating,"
said Corona del Mar resident Pat Carr, who stopped in to the store
because it's near her dentist.
She was buying wrist rattles for her new grandson and a
firefighter play set for another little one in the family, but she
said remembers some of the toys in the store from when her children
were growing up.
"[The store has] stuff you can't find other places, that's the big
thing," Carr said. "It's different."
Remember those trick candles that don't blow out, or the old "joy
buzzer" that would surprise the unsuspecting person who shook your
hand? Johnston said kids still love those.
"This is where a lot of the island kids' allowance is spent," she
said of her display of trick coins, gum that turns your tongue black
and other novelty items. "Kids love playing pranks."
Johnston seems in tune with children and their tastes despite
having no children of her own.
"I've watched children grow up in here, so I haven't missed out on
the experience," she said. "I'm surrounded by children every day."
Piazza thinks being kid-friendly is key to the store's success.
People come back, she said, "because we love the kids and we have fun
with them. I prefer them to adults, actually."
Our Gang's General Store is open seven days a week at 217 1/2
Marine Ave., Balboa Island.