Irvin Kipper may be 88 years old, but he still loves wooden blocks and Tinker Toys.
In fact for 60 years, "Kip"
has spent his days thinking almost exclusively about dolls and trains and stuffed bears, because he owns Kip's Toyland in the original Farmers Market.
Kipper just can't stay away from his store.
"The few times when I haven't gone to work, I feel like I'm kind of lost," he said. "I might do a few things around the house, but I think, 'What am I doing here? I should be over there working.'"
And work he does, Monday through Saturday, still making sure that his customers find that special toy for their children or grandchildren.
Kipper's own parents were Russian immigrants who settled first in Fort Worth, Texas. His father, Sam Kipper, was a junk dealer who taught his son about hard work.
"My father would go in our truck to the outlying farms and ask people if they had any broken equipment," Kipper recalled. "He'd buy it as cheaply as he could, dismantle it to salvage the different metal parts, and sell it. And that's how he earned his money."
When Kipper was 8, the family moved to Los Angeles, where they settled in the Jewish neighborhood near Central Avenue.
"My father worked with four of my uncles in the produce business," Kipper said, "and in the summertime I helped my dad. It was a great time of my life."
Kipper's father would wake him at 2 a.m. and they'd head over to the wholesale market at Ninth Street and Central Avenue. Sam Kipper would buy 100-pound bags of potatoes or 50-pound bags of onions, or lug boxes of apricots, and it was young Irvin's job to stack everything in the truck. Their route included mom-and-pop grocery stores, hospitals and restaurants.
"Like most kids in those days, I had a great deal of responsibility helping the family," Kipper said. "I also worked for my uncles, and I was taught something different by each of these entrepreneurs. One was meticulously clean and he wanted his truck kept a certain way. He'd say, 'This truck is my showroom. When I bring my customers out to show them the fruits or vegetables, I want it to look good.' He taught me how important it was to keep things clean and orderly and I'm that way in my own store."
Kipper graduated from Jefferson High School in 1933. He had planned to study accounting in college, but the Depression ended that dream.
"I had to work," Kipper said. "And my older brother had to leave UCLA and get a job to help support the family. Those were hard times"
The 16-year-old Kipper was able to get work through a family friend. "I was hired at Paris Beauty Supply," Kipper recalled. "I got 65 cents an hour doing deliveries. Back then, every large building downtown had a beauty shop in it. So we'd get a phone call from a beauty shop in the Garfield Building that a customer was coming in 15 minutes to get her hair colored and they needed No. 14 hair dye. Our shipping department would put it in a bag, and would run like hell down to the Garfield Building, arriving in time for them to color this beautiful woman's hair. That was my job, and I was very lucky to get it."
"I wasn't always a shlepper," he said. "I eventually got promoted to work in accounts payable. That's when I became a bookkeeper."
Kipper married his wife, Gertrude Klein, in 1939. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and was stationed in Italy until 1945.
When he returned, Kipper and his wife decided to go into their own business.
"We planned to open a baby shop," Kipper recalled, "but we happened to see an ad for a toy store that was for sale in Town and Country Village, at Third and Fairfax, across from Farmers Market. I had enough business acumen at that point, so I thought I could tackle this. And with Gertrude's support, it worked out fine."
The small toy store the Kippers bought expanded two times before they were invited to take over a toy store in the Farmers Market in 1956. That was a great move, Kipper said.
"In those days, Farmers Market was the place to be, because the traffic was good, and we had a tremendous reputation as a tourist attraction," he said. "Of course, with The Grove opening, it's become even busier."
The great thing about owning a toy store, Kipper said, is that people are happy when they come in: "We have young mothers buying for their children, and we have doting grandparents. They're buying for someone that they want to buy for, so the atmosphere is almost always very nice."
It's also apparently very nice working for Irvin Kipper, which Tina Fleming has done for 17 years.
"I wouldn't even think of leaving this job unless Kip retires," she said. "He's the easiest boss I've ever had. He stays calm, even when there are children running around the store, throwing things. I get upset, but he doesn't. We get worried sometimes when he climbs up a ladder ... but he still does it. He doesn't seem to think he's as old as he is. He amazes me."
Kipper seems a bit surprised himself that he's been at it so long.
"I don't know whether I'm working because I feel good or whether I feel good because I'm working," he said. "It just seems like this is what I want to do."
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.