It didn’t start out as fun. In fact, it started out as a nightmare.
During World War II, Irvin Kipper, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, was on his 26th combat mission when his B-17 bomber was shot down over Italy. He and his crew spent the next eight months in a POW camp.
Upon returning home to Los Angeles after the war, Irvin decided to focus on a more innocent world—the world of children.
“My dad was done eating meals out of a can,” says Don Kipper, Irvin’s son. “He had always been fascinated by the mechanical holiday displays in the department store windows, so he got the idea to open a toy store.”
Toy stores didn’t exist back in the 1940s, so Irvin’s idea was rather revolutionary. He opened his store in the Town & Country Village (the site of today’s Whole Foods Market on 3rd St. and Fairfax) and began by selling balloons and other trinkets.
“Because of their material, balloons had been rationed during the war, so those were the most popular items,” says Don, whose first job as a nine-year-old was to tie the strings on the balloons.
In 1956, the store moved across the street to the Farmers Market.
“I remember it was my exact 10th birthday,” recalls Don. “Dad gave me a chisel and hammer and said ‘start working on the floor!’”
Don continued to work at the store through high school and college, then left to explore the world. Of course, the pull of the toy store was undeniable.
“We decided on my dad’s 95th birthday that it was time to pass the baton,” says Don. So he returned home to take over the store for good. But he wasn’t alone.
“This was not exactly my plan, but I gave it a shot and it turns out that I love it!” says Don’s daughter, Lily, the store’s manager.
“After I graduated from Loyola Marymount University, I never thought that I would go into retail, but grandpa created and built it—and I just love our family story—so here I am!” Lily exclaims with amusement.
Growing up around the toy store as a child, Lily wasn’t allowed to do much.
“My grandfather is a bit old-school,” laughs Lily. “He didn’t think a girl should be climbing ladders and stocking shelves.”
My, oh my, how things have changed.
“I’m happy to let Lily do all the work!” laughs Don. “She’s the one who flies around on the ladders all day, stocking shelves and taking inventory!”
Turns out, predicting inventory is the hardest part of the job.
“It’s difficult to predict what people are going to want and how fast something is going to fly off the shelves,” says Lily. “Especially around the holidays, you really try to get those orders right.”
Not only is Kip’s Toyland the oldest toy store in Los Angeles, it’s also known for shunning anything that plugs in.
“We will never be a Toys R Us,” says Don proudly.
Walking the aisles, shoppers can find anything from a retro Fisher Price “chatter telephone” to Thomas the Train to magic kits to Legos to board games and more.
Spy kits, ant farms, science kits, Play-Doh, and Don’s personal favorite—wooden building blocks—line the shelves in abundance.
“They were my favorite toy in kindergarten and they’re my favorite toy now,” Don admits.
By the time this issue goes to print, Irvin will have turned 99 years old.
He and his wife, Gertrude, along with the rest of the family, recently celebrated the store’s 70th birthday with a grand bash in the Farmers Market Plaza.
The celebration included a photo booth, live toy soldier band, a giant Rubik’s Cube, life-size Barbie Photo Box, carnival booths, cake and Hiccups the clown, who created balloon animals for the celebrants, both big and small. Hundreds of toys were donated to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Our customers are very loyal,” says Don.
“I love it when a customer walks in the door and says ‘my grandparents brought me here and now I’m bringing my own grandkids.’”
It’s a sentiment that will take Kip’s Toyland into the next decades and beyond. “If you look to the past, we hope that will be our future,” says Don, sentimentally. “We keep on keeping on.”
By Sondi Toll Sepenuk