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L.A at Large

Shopping 4th Street's Inner-City Toy Land

December 17, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

"Move, move, comin' through." Their voices are gruff, their clothes and faces grimy. "Comin' through, comin' through, m-m-m-move! " they shout. The three men, single file, push past the Midnight Mission and charge through the 4th Street wholesale toy district crowd. This is their turf, by all appearances, and the throng of bargain-hunting Christmas shoppers are choking it up.

Two blocks past the mission and a sidewalk covered with homeless people squatting, standing, sprawled on the ground, the trio is splintered by the invading shoppers. Two stagger sideways, one enters an alleyway, another steers himself toward Ike's Market, convenience store to the homeless. The third, dressed in black except for his red cap, lists as he watches a legal break-in.

A shopper--with his wife, three kids and bags full of toys beside him--has locked himself out of his car. Friends are trying to lift the lock inside with a coat hanger inserted through the cracked window. The Skid Row regular staggers backward and laughs.

In the toy store behind him, an Asian shopkeeper is repeating "Veinte-quatro, veinte-quatro " to a Latina customer.

"Yes, things are cheaper here," Shushanik Balin says in another store farther up 4th Street. The Armenian-born woman says she's been shopping in the wholesale toy district for several Christmases. Though the district's streets are nearly impassable these few weekends before Christmas, the stores are "not so crowded" as the major department stores, she says.

"You get waited on faster."

Balin, her mother and her children leave with six Emerson toy helicopters for $62.50.

Across the street, a boy of about 4 leads his parents rapidly down an aisle pointing. "Este, y este ... y este, " he says. His last designated item is a Striking Bag Outfit, a toy version of a punching bag that will develop the kid's "speed, timing, reflexes and rhythm" for 30 bucks.

He takes off down the aisle with a volleyball, dodging his parents and other customers. His speed, timing, reflexes and rhythm seem fine.

Out on 4th Street, the Saturday afternoon crowds move three and four abreast down the narrow, dirty sidewalks. Panhandlers ask for 50 cents, which they are later seen spending at Ike's. Sidewalk food vendors want to know why you don't want to buy their thick beef hot dogs.

"Ah, come on. How I'm gonna make a living?" one asks with a smile. The heavy odor of grilled meat and onions rises toward the taupe haze of L.A.'s downtown skyline.

"Things do cost less here than at the Beverly Center, but you still have to compare prices," even within the wholesale district, says Mercedes Tobar, a Nicaraguan native.

Take a BMW 320i, for example--the battery-operated kind. Retail, it costs $17 at one store in the district. At another, $16. If you buy in sufficient quantities, you can get it wholesale for $14.50.

The Economic Climate

An elderly shopkeeper, who has an inviting smile but speaks no English, stands at the store entrance eating a bowl of rice, chicken and onions with chopsticks.

Inside, Vanna Hang, whose family owns the store, takes the economic temperature.

"Business is good, but not so good as last year. I don't know why for sure--maybe the stock market crash, maybe the currency," he says, meaning the devaluation of the dollar.

Nick Sun, another toy-store owner, says last year the U.S. dollar was worth 40 Taiwanese dollars (most of the toys in the wholesale district are imported from the Far East, especially Taiwan). Today, the U.S. dollar is worth about 28 Taiwanese dollars.

"Business has slowed," he says.

Toys Seen on TV

"We sell American toys," says Victor Partida, employed at another store along the strip. He picks up a Barbie doll proudly. "People prefer American toys, that's what gets advertised on TV. That's the main thing (that brings customers in)--TV."

So in his store, you won't find Miami Force, made in Taiwan.

The "Mystery action, open top car"--a black Corvette--sports Miami Vice's pastel pink and blue stripes. Its inhabitants are a fair-skinned blond man, and a dark-haired Latin-looking man.

When the car goes into action, the top flips up "manually," the headlights keep blinking and then the car stops. The doors fly open and the plainclothes officers leap out and shoot with rapid fire sound and lighting effects. "Shooting done, the policemen move back, doors close and the car starts moving again, seeking to bust crime."

It says so, right on the box. Price: $9.

A Placid Wanderer

Along 4th Street, a dark-haired, bearded man wanders. Lots of men and women wander here, of course. But this homeless man--years of dirt seemingly ground into his skin, a frayed and dingy tan duffel bag slung across his back--does not seem offended by the seasonal onslaught of bargain seekers.

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