Toy Boat sets sail

When Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat owners Lori and Mike Curtin locked up at 5 p.m. Friday, they cried.

"We put our life into this business, and we're just tapped out," said Lori, 40. "We can't do any more."

The store's website encourages customers to say its name — a classic childhood tongue twister — three times, fast. There won't be much need for that anymore, however, since the Curtins shuttered the Corona del Mar specialty toy store last week.

A note stuck to the door alerted passers-by: "It is with a very heavy heart we have decided to close our beloved iconic toy store in Corona del Mar.

"Like so many other small businesses this economy has taken its toll on us. Unfortunately we did not have the necessary capital to stock the store to our satisfaction or our customers."

The note is signed by the Curtins, who, with this labor of love, followed in the footsteps of their families, both of which were involved in the toy industry.

"It got too difficult for me to be in the store with customers," Lori said, crying. "These people are like family, and this wasn't just a hobby for us, it was our life."

Some customers reacted rudely about Toy Boat's low stock levels and expressed disbelief that it remained open, by making audible, hurtful comments, she said.

For every one of those interactions, however, Lori described developing several meaningful relationships over the store counter and making friends with customers who stopped by, not for a sale, but to lend an ear.

"They kept us going," she said. "They would say nice things, or just be positive, and that, to me, went farther than them buying anything. If it wasn't for those relationships, we would have closed long ago."

Crushing debt eventually forced the couple's hand, she said.

The family-owned-and-operated store made headlines in July with the initial news that it might close. Bill Handel of KFI radio stepped in to earn the store some additional time with a cash mob — where supporters are asked to support a local business by making purchases — but the results proved short-term.

While the Curtins hoped the inflow of community support would help them get back on their feet, they encountered "aggressive creditors," who refused to support them. The family also has a substantial bank loan.

Soon, there was just nothing left to give.

"We felt the effects of the recession since 2009," Lori said. "We saw a decline in our business, and the rents never changed, although our sales did."

Although the couple axed three other locations last year, they decided to keep the doors open at 3331 E. Coast Hwy., which has housed a toy store in the Flower Streets neighborhood for more than 50 years. The Curtins bought the shop in 2007.

"This is the original location, and we wanted to just try to give back to its roots, so to speak," Lori said. "We felt it was important to keep up with the tradition of having a toy store in town, one that people were emotionally tied to. We've served generations of families, and it was important for us to keep that here."

Having spent six days a week for the past five and a half years helping shoppers choose toys and gifts and packing parcels for them, the Curtins are now tasked with returning the Toy Boat's meager inventory to vendors.

Although Mike, 51, spent Sunday night plastering the windows with brown paper, they have yet to determine the future of Toy Boat's well-known toy drum sign.

Details are not confirmed about the next occupant.

"I'm going to miss everything, but for sure the customers and the kids," said Lori, adding that her husband was "sad, but doing his best to hang in there."

Recalling her 10-year-old step daughter Colby's death in 2009, Lori affirmed that their family had been through worse tragedies.

"She loved working in the store with us," she said. "It's hard because it's the closing of a chapter. But I believe that when a door closes another one opens, and so we have to move forward, you know."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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