Coburn Palmer / The Bull
It’s a brightly lit toy store on a Saturday morning. Kids ride their bikes up to the front door and come inside to play pinball. It’s a family store, “where kids can bring their adults.”
Behind the register stands Dave Levy, six feet tall in his torn black jeans, black boots, T-shirt, dark sunglasses and shoulder length hair tied into a ponytail. He is joking with one of his regular customers about his batting style and waving to the kids who have just come in to play on his antique pinball machines.
Behind him on the wall are autographed pictures of such famous people as Bo Hopkins, Barbara Eden, Bob Wilson, Greg Townsend and Jim Palmer. On the shelf behind the counter sits Levy’s personal collection of retro toys and advertising icons.
“This store is cool,” says one of kids.
Owning The Big Kid on Burbank Boulevard in Sherman Oaks for the past six years is Levy’s passion and has been his dream come true. Before opening the Big Kid he had a lengthy career in magazine sales but was miserable.
“I was a corporate burnout. I did a 23-year sentence in corporate America,” says Levy.
Wandering around the store customers can check out the life size “man in the moon” mannequin next to the Schwinn bike or check out the baseball cards and Garbage Pail Kid cards in the glass display case as Levy chats them up. They can wander through the store checking out the GI Joe and Star Wars action figures they used to play with as a kid or stop and stare at the lava lamps next to the old fashioned TV playing a Smurf’s video.
“I love their reaction when they first walk in the door like, ‘wow’,” says Levy.
A Star Trek oil painting adorns a wall next to a War of the Worlds poster, alongside a Jetsons watercolor. Walking around the store customers’ notice the Mickey Mouse shirts for sale next to the Beatles and Where the Wild Things Are shirts. Kids play with the old-fashioned pinball machine and Gumby figurines.
A speaker next to the register comes to life. “Steve party of three.”
“Steve party of three,” repeats Levy somewhat louder.
The Big Kid partners with Nat’s Early Bite, the restaurant next door. Levy provides a comfortable living room waiting area for Nat’s customers and Nat’s encourages customers to browse through Levy’s store while they wait.
Levy credits his unusual style of business for keeping his store going in tough times. Along with partnering with Nat’s and maintaining a family environment in his store, Levy also sells his products in unique ways. About a third of the store is on consignment. He rents out space to other collectors who sell their wares through him.
The rest of the store sells products in a more conventional way. Some of the toys are actually antiques and the rest are reproductions that are still being manufactured, like yo-yo’s and chattering teeth.
He works with a small staff to keep costs low. “We’re lean and mean,” Levy says. He only has three full time employees with a couple part timers. It’s better than having a lot of part timers and a manager, he maintains.
His employees are passionate about his store too.
“[This store is about] reconnecting people with things they had when they were kids,” says Jill Procia. “They can smell or taste the stuff they grew up with.”
As the economy has declined Levy has noted a change in business. He seems to have more customers ringing more transactions through the register but at lower amounts. This has caused Levy to change the style in which he does business. Along with big-ticket items he also carries much smaller and less expensive collectibles like trading cards and figurines which go for as low as two or three dollars.
“People that enjoy this type of stuff are special warm people,” says Levy of his customers.
Levy keeps his store fresh and new to keep people coming back. The Big Kid is constantly changing. Displays get moved frequently and new toys with a retro feel are always being brought in.
“Its like a giant puzzle that’s never completed,” says Levy.
The Big Kid now occupies the retail space that used to belong to the Red Toy. For years Levy and his wife used to eat next door at Nat’s and wait outside in the wind, sun and rain while waiting for a table. They would look over at the toy store next to them and think they could do better.
“Just by looking at this place I thought so much more could be done here. If this guy ever lets it go I’m gonna pick it up,” Levy recalls.
Levy started out as a collector of retro advertising icons. He first became obsessed with George Powell’s puppetoons. Puppetoons were popular advertising tools in the 30′s and 40′s. Later, his passion spread to antique toys.
For years Levy made his own obsessive search for Speedy Alka Seltzer, a red haired figurine holding an Alka Seltzer tablet. He spent years searching through swap meets, garage sales, and antique malls
”Its like you get one and you have to have the next one,” says Levy.
Levy has designed the store to be relaxing and inviting.
The living room waiting area, complete with a custom plastic covered couch is his daughter Danielle Levy’s favorite part of the store because it has an old fashioned family feel to it.
“It’s like stepping back in time even if you didn’t live back then,” she says laughing.
Danielle is quick to point out that the coffee table used to be in Levy’s home.
“He sold it to one collector, and that collector sold it to someone else. Then somehow, he found it and bought it back,” she says with a smile. “Everything in here has a story.”
Danielle especially loves all the old photos of the San Fernando Valley in the 50′s and Stan Cline’s pictures of Las Vegas in “The Early Days.”
“Its like a museum that you can take home with you,” Danielle says.
She remembers working the counter one day and having a family come in and buy as much Beatles memorabilia as they could get their hands on.
“The kids that come in here are more cultured,” she says.
All of Levy’s customers are unique in their own way and it is this day to day experience of working with people that has kept Levy positive.
Living his dream has taught Levy to be positive and maintaining a business with almost no retail background has taught him to be resourceful. Levy has worked hard for what he has but he is the first one to laugh at a joke or smile at a new friend as he calls his customers.
“Don’t let the bad times get you down and don’t take the good times for granted,” Levy says with a smile.