I have a confession to make. Just after the pandemic hit, I started playing with dolls. It began with one purple-haired Barbie doll, then another who sports an Afro and a third who has golden microbraids. By the start of fall, I had a whole community of dolls complete with full wardrobes, hand-carved, doll-size chairs, tea tables and bookcases with miniature books to fill the shelves.
When I told Don Kipper, owner of the beloved Kip’s Toyland, about my joyful pandemic distraction, he chuckled. He’s used to adults walking into his store for the first time and being at least as enamored as their kids are. Kip’s Toyland, a multigenerational business celebrating its 75th year, specializes in classic toys that “you can’t plug in.” And so, entering the store is like entering a wonderland of nostalgia. Behold the old school Barbies, yes, but also Slinkies, Lincoln Logs, yo-yos, hula hoops, Sesame Street puppets, Raggedy Ann dolls and shelves upon shelves of board games.
Father-daughter owners Don and Lily Kipper have had to pivot their business during the pandemic. For the first time in the store’s history, they are selling some of their toys online. Nevertheless, customers were ecstatic when the store, located at The Original Farmers Market, reopened its doors. There’s something about nostalgia and play that helps soothe our worries about the future.
In honor of holiday cheer, I caught up with Don, eldest son of original owner Irvin “Kip” Kipper, on a recent afternoon to chat about his family business’ past, present and future.
I understand that you don’t sell any toys that people have to actually plug in.
That’s correct. There’s this nostalgia factor that has kept Angelenos and tourists coming back for more throughout the years. We encourage people to take a trip down memory lane, which has served them well in the midst of the pandemic as customers yearn for the simple comforts brought by classic toys, from the iconic Slinky, the Etch-a-Sketch and the Magic 8 Ball.
We get reinforcement all the time from our customers who say, “I remember playing that when I was a kid,” and I guess their kids love it, too, because they keep coming back.
Tell me a little about the history of Kip’s as you remember it from childhood. At what point did you get involved in helping out at the store?
Getting involved was easy because it wasn’t a voting issue; I didn’t have a choice. The idea was, “If you want dinner, come on down and work in the store.” All the other kids thought, “Geez, you’ve got the life of Riley – your dad owns a toy store.” But whenever we wanted something for ourselves, Mom would say, “Go down to the store and play with it while you’re there.”
I got an opportunity at 9 years old where I was in charge of tying strings on the balloons. This was serious. No one could do it quite like I could.
I worked at the store through high school and college. I went into my own career until my dad got to be about 95 years old, and I said, “Maybe you’ve earned the right to work less.” He was committed to it, it’s what drove him.
When did you take over the store?
I got involved again 11 years ago. Five years ago, we had a grand 70th anniversary that my dad was able to participate in as an observer.
What are Kip’s most popular toys – and what is your personal favorite?
One of the most popular things we have in the store is puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. Especially now, since everyone’s limited to what they can do outside the home. But they’ve always been enormously popular and continue to be. Also, Legos are still popular because it’s very hands on and you’re creating something.
My favorite by far are those wooden blocks we used to play in kindergarten. The only thing that limited you was your imagination. They’re forever. They’re permanent.
And what did you love at the store when you were a kid?
As a boy, I used to love to build models. They were challenging and you could take your jet fighter plane and paint it and do all kinds of things.
Your daughter is the third generation at Kip’s Toyland. When did she start working with you?
[Like my parents], I have two kids as well – a son who is a sports agent and my daughter, Lily, who is the store’s manager and buyer. She started helping out around the store first when she was about 10. Everybody in the family has a job doing something. The job of dusting was a big one. Dust is endless. You know you’ll always have job security because the shelves have to be dusted.
About 10 years ago, she was helping out and it was only going to be about a week or two, but she quickly got committed. It’s a very happy pursuit. People come in and they’re happy.
How do you think this holiday season will be for Kip’s?
For the holidays, I just don’t know what to anticipate. I have two angels sitting on my shoulder. The devil one says, “This virus is getting out of control and people are going to stay home and order online from the big-box stores. You’re toast.” The good angel one says, “Well, you know these people have been cooped up for all this time and they want to get out, and you’re going to do just fine during the holidays, just wait and see.” So, that’s what we’re going to do: Wait and see and hope for the best.
The small businesses, the moms and pops, the bricks and mortars, are really the engines that drive the bigger economy. Truthfully, we’re so grateful to the community for their support over all these years.