Hank is a 1-year-old gear jockey. He bounces with a kind of Strauss waltz-like ebullience when a wheel positions itself in his field of vision. I have no scientific data to back this up, but he seems to possess a nimble radar for all things automotive, almost like a shark sensing a floundering adolescent seal on a lazy current. Having witnessed my toddler son’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for all things with tires, axles and wheels, I find myself striking out often in search of the perfect toy truck.
Whether you require your toy truck to be composed of 100-percent recycled newspaper, cardboard or repurposed retired toy-truck parts, there is likely, in this age of the child, a toy for you, the hip discerning parent looking for activities for toddlers (at least, that’s how I like to think of you – and myself).
Generations of old would likely have purchased the Tickle Me Elmo, the Super Soaker, the Nerf Choking-Hazard 1000, a Lincoln Log set and the entire GI Joe battalion and thought, “Job well done. The kid should be happy now – for another two weeks.” But in this age of Chinese lead paint, consumption shaming and de-cluttering/unplugging, what does the old-school toy establishment do? Is there room for the family toy store? The answer is, at least in L.A., an enthusiastic yes!
Toy Culture in L.A.
I primarily grew up on the Westside and toys, at least for me, meant one place in particular – Puzzle Zoo on the 3rd Street Promenade. As an independent store with some longevity in the Los Angeles area, the Zoo is a welcome novelty. But it wasn’t like that when I was trekking there as a young’un, and it got me thinking about toys and L.A. as a whole. For better or worse, Los Angeles has a history of being a hedonistic LEGO fortress of toy culture. After all, what is a Porsche, BMW or Tesla but a toy for a (wealthy) adult?
I find that Hank has accumulated an inordinate amount of toys for someone who has only resided in Los Angeles for 18 months. I look upon his kingdom of blocks, trains, cars, flash cards, stickers, balls, stuffed animals and tricycles, and I think, how did it come to this? Then I think back to my own childhood toys and activities for toddlers these days are so different. I had the complete Ghostbusters action-figure and playroom set, the complete Ninja Turtle sewer world and the full legion of LEGO space fighters, which were, once perfectly constructed, as quickly decommissioned as any serious space fighter jet. “Oh, it doesn’t fly,” I would tell a concerned adult.
When my West Coast affluenza would pick up, I’d concoct a scheme to acquire some additions to my toy portfolio at Puzzle Zoo. I’d take a Blue Bus alone to 3rd and Arizona, then start walking. I was a pretty industrious 10-year-old, especially when it came to toys. I scoped out the delightfully cluttered shelves and narrow pathways of the Zoo and hunted for my latest trophy.
3rd Street Promenade was Toy Mecca
Back in the day, Puzzle Zoo, which opened its doors in 1993, wasn’t the only toy game in town. The Promenade, as some may recall, was full of independent shops – along with a Woolworth’s and JC Penney. But if the rising tide of commercialism sinks all indie boats, it hasn’t applied to Puzzle Zoo, which remains nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway. The famed establishment has changed location along the strip and has shrunk in size. Still, the Zoo hasn’t lost its color. I remember its maze of hallways and steep, cluttered shelves, its uncanny collection of fantasy figurines and action-figure dolls, its odd penchant for puzzles and boxes upon boxes of board games. The Zoo’s shrinking quarters add to its charm and Hank, now walking (albeit like a 6 p.m. barfly) is in a state of cosmic euphoria. The toy truck collection is modest, but there is still plenty to please little Hank. However, Puzzle Zoo mainly caters to an older, perhaps more fan-boyish, crowd. After all, how many toy stores can claim to be open until 11 p.m.?
Just minutes away on 5th Street, The Acorn Store sits nestled between a parking garage and a karate gym. I must have driven by this store a thousand times before noticing it. The truth is, toy stores were never on my radar until I had Hank. Now I have a hawk-eye sense of every toy store in a 20-mile radius. Acorn is worth a visit, if purely for its unique inventory. The boutique could not be any more different from the Zoo. It specializes in authentic wooden toys, blocks and dolls, not rare remnants of American pop culture such as Edward Scissorhands action figures. The store smells of newly chiseled birch and teak, and the toys have a timelessness that make you think, “Hmm, these are like the toys a young Tudor king would have played with.” Many of the toys are made in Germany and have that Old World charm that seems to fascinate Hank. Everything in the shop makes a unique gift, and he is definitely eyeing the unassuming wooden pick-up truck.
Little Rascals Go Toy Crazy
If The Acorn Store appears geared toward obedient kindergartners who have stitched their own knickers, then Toy Crazy is geared toward the little rascal who prefers mud to coloring books and may or may not have enjoyed the taste of paste. There are a few satellite locations, but the Toy Crazy I know straddles the upmarket Santa Monica/Brentwood border. It has haunted a Santa Monica landmark called the Brentwood Country Mart since the ´90s. Toy Crazy is far from stuffy, however, and judging from the inventory is incredibly nurturing for the more sun-worshiping youngsters. This place is right up Hank’s alley and encouraging for parents who simply want to get their toddler an easy, educational and interactive gift. There are literally balls everywhere. (Actually, that is thanks to Hank trying to rearrange the displays.) And even if, in your stalwart search, you don’t find that perfect toy truck at Toy Crazy, it is a worthwhile landmark to visit. The Country Mart has been at San Vicente and 26th since the ´40s, and there’s plenty of good food and drink about.
You might even be able to box out a celebrity from buying that last toy on the rack.
On my way home, driving south and feeling somewhat defeated, I stop at Huzzah! in Venice. Located just north of Venice Boulevard, Huzzah! has a vibrant and friendly ambiance. Maybe it’s the laid-back Venice vibe, but Hank and I are feeling really good. Plus, he is running amok with the plastic bins. He must have the toy munchies. He finds the Flip and Tip Recycling Truck and I can’t tear him away. Huzzah! has a more contemporary feel than the other shops in our Westside odyssey, and it balances its stock with novelties and gag toys for adults. There’s plenty for every child age group, too. A toy store with such self-awareness and understanding of the struggles of choosing a toy is unique and refreshing. Huzzah! also may be the least expensive spot we’ve visited so far. Hank is happy (He twisted my arm and I bought him the recycling truck), and I am happy to get home and perhaps give toy shopping a break – if only for a couple of weeks.
Isaac Parfrey studied writing at the University of Iowa but grew up in Boyle Heights and Santa Monica. He currently lives in Mar Vista with his wife and son.
Isaac’s Toy Search
Puzzle Zoo: 1411 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; 310-393-9201; additional locations on Main St. in Santa Monica and on Melrose in L.A.
The Acorn Store: 1220 5th Street, Santa Monica
Toy Crazy: 225 26th St., Santa Monica; additional location at Malibu Country Mart
Huzzah!: 2010 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, 310-452-2900