When it comes to kids’ toys, we’re suckers for wooden blocks and stacking rings, for dollhouses and minuscule villages, for fairy wings and refined tea sets that kick-start creativity without the help of AA batteries. Parents who are going cuckoo from beeping and blinking playthings will love Acorn (1220 5th St., Santa Monica, 310-451-5845), a jam-packed shop that sells nothing requiring batteries or plugging in. Owner Ellen West stocks a comprehensive assortment of colorful wood Haba and Selecta toys for tots, miniature gardening tools for wee green thumbs, train sets, and an orchestra's worth of musical instruments from around the world—all displayed amid fantasy murals and mobiles that encourage storytelling. Sporty types will love the Radio Flyer wagons, scooters, and tricycles. An added back space (with a castle-themed dressing room, no less) is devoted to make-believe and stocks princess gowns, pirate outfits, crowns, and magic wands for would-be wizards.
The floors in Kip’s Toyland (Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., L.A., 323-939-8334) are well worn, and the displays are pleasantly chaotic, which makes shopping here like going on a treasure hunt. Located on the north side of the Farmers Market, Irvin "Kip" Kipper's charming 61-year-old store gets us on sentiment every time. You'll feel a little rush when you happen upon Traffic Safety Bingo cards ($1.98 apiece and perfect for that road trip), balsa airplanes ($2.49), and Gyro Wheels ($3.98). Who knew those toys still existed? Kip himself—wild brows and all—is usually around to offer guidance and firsthand information on when the toys were originally released. He also stocks a decent selection of Ty stuffed animals and Playmobil kits, Germany's answer to Denmark's LEGOS.
Don't be deceived by the name. Puzzle Zoo (1413 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, 310-393-9201; also at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-662-1600) is indeed stacked high with puzzles featuring everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Simpsons, but that's only part of the inventory. It also sells Kettler bikes, Tinkertoys, Erector sets, Leapfrog toys, oversize stuffed animals for snuggling (or for families not quite ready for dog ownership), and even Schylling vintage-style tin windup toys. The main lure might just be the action figures from Star Wars, Spawn, and DC comics.
You can't judge a toy store by its facade. Tom’s Toys (437 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-247-9822; also at 2281 Honolulu Ave., Montrose, 818-249-2178), in the heart of 90210, doesn't look like much from the street. Inside, however, the place—including a huge back room—is bursting with merchandise that is well organized and competitively priced, from a knockout selection of Bruder trucks, board games, and Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia to pocket-size Schleich Smurfs to handsome plastic Breyer horses. A few pricey items—like a $399 black pedal airplane by American Retro—have us wishing we were three again.
Older kids will find plenty to put on their wish lists at the sprawling neighborhood fixture San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe (2424 Huntington Dr., San Marino, 636-309-0333). The girls tend to gravitate to the collectible Madame Alexander dolls, the Corolle Dolls that you can feed, bathe, and diaper, and box after box of Calico Critters with all their requisite accessories. Rough-and-tumble boys can be found ogling the Bungee Jumpers or checking out the bug vacuums. (Not that William can't have a doll, to borrow from Marlo Thomas, or vice versa.) Up front is a display featuring several dozen inexpensive party favor ideas—or post-dentist pick-me-ups—including kazoos, kaleidoscopes, spinning tops, and Silly Putty. Some toy emporiums give short shrift to baby toys, but not this one: There's a ton of colorful stuff from the likes of Lamaze and IQ Baby.
Adults might get more excited than the kids about the Toy Dept. (255 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626-396-9487), a year-and-a-half-old find just east of Old Pasadena where the shelves are filled with favorites from their own childhood—Etch A Sketch, Sit 'n Spin, Sea-Monkeys, Big Wheels, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Matchbox cars, and View-Masters. Not everything is retro: You can go home with a $65 My Real Baby, for example, but why would you when there are potato guns, chattering windup teeth, and Mad Libs to be had? Plural noun, anyone?
Photograph courtesy Flickr/juliewolfson306