Noe Valley Voice December-January 2000

Looking for Toyland on 24th Street

By Alison Pence

If you are like me, the last thing you want to do this time of year is drive to the mall or fight the crowds at Toys 'R' Us. But neither do you want to do your shopping in the glow of a computer screen.

I know, I know, we're supposed to give up shopping altogether--to save the world from crass commercialism. But I have a 3-year-old son. He's heard the news: Santa Claus is coming to town.

Besides, I like toys, too. So, to see if I could do my shopping on foot, while at the same time supporting the local stores, I ran out to do a quick survey of 24th Street.

Believe it or not, most of our shops have gift items for kids. (They don't call us Stroller Valley for nothing.) There are so many toys, in fact, it was difficult to cull a selection to feature here.

Still, I have tried to pick stuff that anyone--from toddlers to preteens--would enjoy. I also prefer toys that kids have to use their hands or heads to play with.

I admit I had some help from an expert toy tester. I took my son with me on assignment, and this is what we learned.

Noah's Workshop

Our first stop was The Ark (3845 24th St.; 821-1257), the only store in Downtown Noe Valley devoted exclusively to toys. The Ark has many creative and amazing playthings. And co-owners Ringo Palencia and Pam Byers have been busy little elves this season.

This year Palencia and Byers are excited about their Puzzle World collection, 3-D modular "systems" by Melissa & Doug. "They [Melissa and Doug] are the sweetest people," says Byers. "She called me 10 years ago, and I bought their first puzzles. I feel like she's my good friend."

Made of wood covered with laminated paper, the puzzles can be assembled to create towns or landscapes dotted with houses, office buildings, cars, trees--you name it. There are also planes and helicopters, and a harbor featuring a submarine, ferry, crane, and drawbridge. Some sets have Brio-compatible tracks, and the Puzzle World trains, cars, and trucks come with magnetic couplers. The Tunnel Loop, a good starter set, is $29.99. The store has a great display for you to kid-test. (My son, a regular at the shop, did not miss the Ark's old train table one bit and really liked this new one.)

For older builders (7 and up), there are Anatomics construct-your-own animals, dinosaurs, and other creatures, starting at $7.95. The Masterbug set lets you create four different bugs, and is $14.99. White Wings gliders and aircraft are also popular with advanced modelers. These planes are based on real planes, so they are technically true and long-flying. One box has six planes, $12.

The Ark also has a wide selection of dress-up clothing, including tutus, wizard hats, and feather boas ($12.95). A beginner sewing kit with six felt hand puppets is $12.95, and a Paint-Your-Own tea set by B.C. Clayworks is $21.95.

Up the street at Wavy Footprints (3961 24th St., 285-3668), a kids shoe store, one can find whimsical socks, slippers, and rain boots that won't bust your budget. Socks with squirrels and raccoons, race cars, or appliquéd flowers range from $3.50 to $6. Other accessories include hair clips with handmade roses by Leisa from $6, and organza headbands from Head Dress for $5.

Susan Lytle, co-owner of the store, sold me on her finger puppets from the Netherlands. She has a horse, elephant, and purple bunnies for $6. She also has a hand puppet with its own finger puppet for $20.

At Little Bean Sprouts next door (3961 24th St.; 550-1668), you will find a sale on all merchandise through December. (Come January, the store will be closed for a couple of weeks for remodeling.) Little Bean Sprouts has books and toys for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. While I was in, the shop had a sale on activity kits that included tools, supplies, and a how-to book for $12.95. There was a modeling clay kit and a sand painting kit, both of which looked good.

At Just for Fun (3982 24th St.; 285-4068), children in tow will be amused for as long as you want them to be by the moving figurines and snow scenes at the front of the store. You'll just have to tie them in the stroller so they won't touch. Give them a gumball from the machine and listen to it play a holiday tune. Just for Fun has a good selection of nostalgia toys--patent medicine for kids of all ages.

John Hundt, the employee who showed me around, said, "These were great toys when we were kids." "Oh no," I told him, "I'm much too young for those tin toys." But board games like Operation and Chutes and Ladders, and Mr. Potato Head, Barbie, and Battleship I remember well. Or how about Ant Farm, Barrel of Monkeys, or Sea Monkeys? My personal favorite was Auto Bingo, the game with the little windows you slide every time you see a cow, police car, or tractor.

Young children might like a foam puzzle book, from Innovative Kids, for about $10. The foam cutouts are soft and textured and give the books a nice, well, chewable quality. I also gravitated toward the old-fashioned jump ropes. The ones at Just for Fun, $6.95 from House of Marbles, have handpainted wooden handles. For older kids, there are model kits by Rapid Kit, enabling you to make insects or machines for $13.95. Craft kits, science kits, and all sorts of games are well represented in this store. If your "child" has four legs, be sure to let Hundt know; he has treats behind the counter for you.

Groovy Girls, Umbrellas with Ears

By now, of course, my son is deconstructing on the sidewalk, and people are looking at me strangely and congratulating themselves on getting a dog. So we step into Small Frys (4066 24th St.; 648-3954) to use the bathroom. The store also provides a nursing/dressing room. "We call it the changing room," says owner Carol Yenne, "because it has a changing table."

In addition, there is a small activity area for kids, so I sit for a minute and maniacally hammer at a blue ball, which my son is happy to chase after and return. I compliment him on his fetching skills, and we return to our task.

Predominantly a clothing store for children, Small Frys also carries a select number of toys. This season the shop is touting the Groovy Girl. Groovy Girls and Boys are ethnically diverse, machine-washable rag dolls that come in three sizes. The supersize is 40 inches tall and has straps on her feet so that she can be a child's dance partner. The medium-size doll is 13 inches and at $10.95 is very reasonable. (The third size is a finger puppet.)

One thing that caught my eye was a toy theater for $29.95 from Manhattan Toy. This is a portable puppet playhouse complete with velvet curtains. Separate puppets range from $4 to $6. Another portable play set at Small Frys is a circus, from Awesome Kids. It comes in a box the size of a makeup case, and features a play mat, trapeze artists, clowns, and animals, for $19.95. I almost bought one on the spot. There is also a Medieval Times play set and a beading kit in this series.

"Don't forget to tell everyone we still have Beanie Babies," Yenne said as I was leaving. "They have come out with the zodiac, and they are still only $5.95." They are cute with their little metallic hooves and fantasy fur.

Next, we went into Peek-a-Bootique (1306 Castro St.; 641-6192), because you never know what treasures you will find on the gently-used toy shelf. I immediately saw some Lincoln Logs and two erector sets. I also perused the used bookshelf for favorite titles. Among the new toys, Peek-a-Bootique has Papa Don's magnet cars for $14.95. Made of wood, with removable drivers, these cars look like a lot of fun. One pack has six cars.

A selection of Bathtime stickers,which stick to the side of the tub, includes sea creatures, construction workers, or dress-up dolls for $3.25. For infants, I love the black and white Stim-Mobile by Wimmer-Ferguson, $18.95. For $9.95, you can buy an umbrella with ears. Ladybug, butterfly, cat, or bumblebee designs are also available, matching boots extra.

It's the Little Things

Need stocking stuffers? Presents for Chanukah or Kwanzaa? We have many neighborhood stores with little items that can go a long way toward entertaining a child. Small toys make good traveling companions and are fun to have in a pocket for trips to the park or the laundromat.

At the bath shop Common Scents (3920 24th St.; 826-1019), there are tiny boats and small rubber fish and whales for 70 cents apiece. Paper Plus (1309 Castro St.; 643-9954) also has a good selection of stickers and small rubber toys.

Colorcrane (3957 24th St.; 285-1387) has a pen that sings 16 different melodies. The shop has loads of art supplies, including peel-off window paint ($5.50) and all things Crayola. My favorite for traveling is Model Magic, $4.99. This incredible clay does not shred or make a mess and is great to have on an airplane. Colorcrane has tattoos and stickers, blank puzzles for 99 cents, and letter beads for personalized bracelets (45 cents a bead).

The Global Marketplace

If you're looking for a gift that is handmade, check out Global Exchange (4018 24th St.; 648-8068). The shop has stuffed dolls and animals in vivid colors and many brightly colored wood objects. There are bookshelves and other wall decorations, as well as a "How Tall Am I?" giraffe. My favorite item on this trip was the Friendly Butterfly mobile, made in Sri Lanka, $28. The Exchange also has hats and kites, and books and tapes. Musical instruments like drums are great for little kids if the parents can tolerate them.

At Cottage Industry (4068 24th St.; 821-2465), they have some lovely beaded curtains with flower motifs. My favorite would be the glow-in-the-dark moon and stars beaded curtain, $28. Just the thing for a child's window.

Artemisia (746 Diamond St.; 243-0980) also has painted wood decorations appropriate for a child's room. Colorful painted animals from Oaxaca are very popular and start at $8. Hand-carved maracas start are $4. Juan Teran, the owner, is on his way back from Mexico right now, with more items for this season's shoppers. His Christmas decorations include charming crèche scenes and lots of tin painted ornaments.

Spend Some Time

If you're interested in spending something other than money, how about spending some time? You and your youngster can paint a pot together at Terra Mia (4037 24th St.; 642-9911) or have ice cream at Fountain of Youth (1484 Church St.; 206-9411), tea at Lovejoy's (1351 Church St.; 648-5895), or hot chocolate almost anywhere. Build some memories with your favorite little person.

Well, that about wraps it up. Have fun on your store trek. My son was very good (two lollipops and a bagel's worth). I am going home for my nap.