Toy Boat store's finances adrift

The large red, white and blue drum with the word "toys" lit in large, neon orange letters is hard to miss.

The distinctive metal sign is rusting, its paint chipping after some 50 years of being hung above the entrance of the Corona del Mar storefront.

But the sign that's been something of a beacon for customers soon may be turning off permanently if Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat closes its doors.

Inside the primary-colored and nautical-themed specialty store — which, before becoming Toy Boat was the Toy Shop of Corona del Mar — the shelves and display stands are noticeably bare.

"We're doing everything we can to keep this store afloat," said Mike Curtin, 51, who co-owns the store with his wife, Lori, 39. "But at some point you have to deal with the situation at hand. The situation at hand is we are cash-poor. That makes it difficult to stock the store and pay our rent."

The Curtins bought all four Toy Boat stores from Gary and Diane Naumann in 2007, after Mike Curtin had worked as an operations manager for the chain for two years.

The financial problems began in 2009, when the economy took a turn for the worse and Mike Curtin's 10-year-old daughter, Colby, died of a rare vascular cancer.

One by one, the Curtins had to close Toy Boat's three other locations: first in Westcliff, then at Fashion Island, and finally in Newport Coast.

In six months, the original Corona del Mar location was the only store left. And if the Curtins can't pay their rent July 31, they will have to close it too.

"We thought that by slowly closing the other stores, we could pull it off," Mike Curtin said.

Fewer Toy Boat stores meant less business, and the couple fell behind on rent and with payments to vendors.

Diane Daruty, 43, of Newport Beach said she reminisces about taking her children, now 10 and 13, to the Fashion Island location, where they spent hours playing on the Thomas & Friends train available for customers at every Toy Boat store.

"It's hard for a store like [Toy Boat] to stay in business because of the competition," she said. "But it's definitely more than just a store."

Scott Thomsen, 21, of Newport Beach moseyed into the Coast Highway store Wednesday afternoon, browsing through the board game section while looking for puzzles.

Thomsen, who frequently drives by the shop, said he hadn't stopped by in a couple years and noticed it was much emptier than he remembered.

Toy Boat had 35 employees when all four locations were open, but now Mike and Lori Curtin run the Corona del Mar store with a few people helping out on weekends and for a few hours on weekdays during the summer.

Inside, customers are greeted by warm smiles, pleasant conversation and maybe a toy suggestion.

Lori Curtin, who wears a necklace with a small anchor charm, said her husband bought it for her when they first bought all the stores in 2007. When her daughter, Chloe, was born almost three years ago, Curtin traded the anchor necklace for a necklace bearing her daughter's name.

"When things started to get rough around here, I put the anchor necklace back on," she said. "I hoped it would bring some luck with it."

Last week, Newport Beach resident Tiffany Antoci asked Toy Boat if the store wanted to sponsor or donate toys for a charity event this fall at Children's Hospital of Orange County, only to find out about the Curtins' financial troubles.

Hoping to spur community support, Antoci emailed a list for those who live in the Port Streets neighborhood in Newport Beach.

"You never know who you'll reach when you send something out," she said. "I just wish I could do more."

Toy Boat has a history of supporting local schools and community events such as the Newport-Mesa Spirit Run, a schools fundraiser.

Lori Curtin said she has started to politely tell customers about their financial situation and asked for help on the store's Facebook page.

So far, Curtin said business seemed to pick up slightly this past weekend, after Antoci sent the email. But a small boost in sales won't be enough to save the store.

It's going to take monetary donations, Curtin said.

"We've put our lives into this, like so many small-business owners do," Lori Curtin said. "My family is in this. Everything is in this. We're trying to do everything we can to stay alive."

dailypilot@latimes.com

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