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At 95, Kip’s Toyland owner ready for more fun and games

by Rachel Heller

December 22, 2011 | 11:25 am

From left: Irvin “Kip” Kipper, wife Gertrude, granddaughter Lily and son Don. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

From left: Irvin “Kip” Kipper, wife Gertrude, granddaughter Lily and son Don. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

On a chilly Monday morning in late November, the sunlit patio outside Kip’s Toyland in the original Farmers Market was awash in anticipation. Reporters and city officials milled about, and passers-by with cameras hovered among the tables and chairs. A birthday surprise was in store for Irvin “Kip” Kipper, the shop’s founder and namesake, who had turned 95 a few days prior.

If someone had told Kipper what all the fuss was about, he might have scowled, laughed incredulously and bid everyone go home. After all, he sums up his six-decade career this way: “No big deal.”

That’s not what Kipper’s family, colleagues and customers say. Opened in 1945, Kip’s Toyland has been a fixture of the iconic market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue for 66 years. The baby boom-era shop preceded Toys R Us and has thrived despite the explosion of big-box stores that now dominate holiday shopping. Generations of local families have stayed loyal, always returning to find that oldie-but-goodie on Kipper’s colorful shelves.

Kipper still tends the shop six days a week, opening its glass double doors at 9 a.m. His eyesight is fading, so he catches a ride every morning with his wife, Gertrude Kipper, relatively spry at 92. The only reason he didn’t go in to work on his 95th birthday last month is because it fell on a Sunday.

At the original Farmers Market, where old-fashioned diner stools and metal counters seem not to have changed since the 1950s, Kip’s Toyland is in its element. Little is different about Kipper’s formula from when the shop first opened. He still stocks the classics: Barbie dolls, Tinker Toys, model airplane kits, Lincoln Logs, Frisbees, watercolor paint sets and Clue.

“My dad is just an encyclopedia of knowledge about toys from the 1940s onward,” said Kipper’s son Don Kipper, 65. But only toys that embody his ideals. “The only toys he’s ever sold that get plugged in are Lite-Brites and Easy-Bake Ovens. He believes in toys that teach kids to be creative, that make them use their imaginations, that let the whole family interact during playtime. He has stayed true to that all these years.”

Among the Toyland’s brightly lit aisles, you won’t find toys that encourage violence. No video games, either. The closest thing to “trendy” is a plastic rendition of Kilowog’s Transforming Moto-Jet from the recent “Green Lantern” movie.

Kipper is soft-spoken, with a self-deprecating smile. His untamed eyebrows call to mind a real-life Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” a toy wizard in his lab.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Kipper grew up in a large family of Russian immigrants. The clan moved to Los Angeles early in his life. Kipper’s father worked in the scrap metal and produce businesses, along with several of his uncles. They often took young Kipper along to help deliver fruits and vegetables to grocery stores.

Kipper had few toys growing up. Most of his fun was improvised and outdoors — playing catch, whipping together a team for baseball. “That taught me what was fun and good for the development of children,” Kipper recalled.

During World War II, Kipper served in the Army Air Corps and flew a bomber in Italy. After the war, he yearned to do something lighthearted that would lift his spirits and those of others. He and Gertrude wanted to open their own business. They bought a quaint novelty shop in the old Town & Country Village across Third Street, where Whole Foods and Kmart are today, and decided to sell toys.

The couple ran the store together until Gertrude left to raise their sons, Don and Robert. In 1956, Kipper was invited to move across the street, into a building then known as the Dell. Tales from the ensuing decades are almost too plentiful for him to recount.

On a visit around the year 2000, the Duchess of York brought her entire security team into Kip’s Toyland.

In the postwar 1940s, when rubber first became widely available, Kip’s was one of the first shops in the area to sell multicolored balloons. “People were standing in line all the way around the corner, waiting to buy a balloon for 25 cents,” Gertrude recalled.

And in 1952, shortly after his father opened a restaurant at the Farmers Market, a 10-year-old Bob Tusquellas received his first Lionel electric train set as a gift from Kip’s. “It was the best Christmas present I’d gotten in my life,” recalled Tusquellas, 69, the longtime owner of Tusquellas Fish & Oyster Bar, Tusquellas Seafoods and Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts at the market.

Tusquellas struck up a friendship with the kindly toy store owner and, over the years, often sprinted the 100 or so yards from his father’s stall to Kipper’s open door. He wasn’t alone: Crowds of children, enthralled with Kipper’s elaborate Lionel train display, would press their faces to the window to watch the sleek locomotive wind among mountains, valleys and farms, Tusquellas recalled.

The restaurateur has since returned to Kip’s with his own children, and now his grandchildren. He still holds Kipper’s work ethic in the highest esteem.

“Kip is what the Farmers Market is all about,” Tusquellas said. “He is my mentor and my professional model. For all of us here at the market, he’s our hero.”

A retiring figure with a slight stoop and a sly wit, Kipper speaks modestly about his life’s work. “Gratitude is the word that comes to my mind,” he said, when he considers his business and family. “I’m grateful and I’m thankful. I feel that gratitude every day.”

Of all the toys he’s sold, he’s still most fond of the items he has stocked since the store opened: Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. These classic building blocks — no batteries, controllers or chargers needed — are also, perhaps not coincidentally, his top sellers. “When we sold those, we knew the kid was going to get a whole lot of fun out of them,” Kipper said. “That’s the kind of thing we always took pride in.”

These days, Kipper and his wife work mostly in a back office, overseeing inventory and paperwork. Two younger generations of Kippers — Don and his daughter, Lily Kipper, 23 — are among the small staff that manages the front counter.

Kipper says he’ll keep working as long as he can. He doesn’t think about retiring. Why walk away from a good thing?

He isn’t worried about keeping the shop in the family, either. He doesn’t want his sons to feel burdened with the responsibility. “I would never tell Don, ‘This is yours now; take care of it.’ He has to want to,” Kipper said. “That will develop. And I’ll try to be wise in the way I let it develop.”

On the morning of Nov. 21, family members, friends and city officials clapped as Kipper, looking a bit bewildered, was led to the patio outside his shop before a cluster of cameras and a cake. City Councilman Tom LaBonge presented him with a proclamation recognizing his “dedication to providing smiles to children of all ages,” LaBonge said, to cheers and applause.

Kipper shook his head in disbelief as Gertrude clutched his arm. “Oh boy,” he marveled, like a kid in a toy store.

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