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A (Pre)Historic Occasion

‘Dinosaur Farm’ in South Pas Nears 25th Anniversary
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Dave Plenn, owner of The Dinosaur Farm on Mission Street, with some of the toys that have made his store unique — for almost 25 years now. Photo by Henk Friezer

A DINOSAUR farm?

What in the world is a dinosaur farm? And why would anyone give the name to a toy store that has dinosaur items, but the only farm I could find was an ant farm?

“My wife and I were brainstorming and she came up with the name,’’ The Dinosaur Farm owner Dave Plenn said of his wife Shelley Stephens, who was then working at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County. “Now people call and ask, ‘What the hell is that?’ But the name is so unusual that people check us out.’’

The name is so unusual that The Dinosaur Farm toy store has been charming children and their parents for 25 years. Plenn, who was a musician and who wrote songs before going into the toy business, now carries the nickname “Dinosaur Dave.’’

November is the 25th anniversary of the toy store, located at 1510 Mission St., and its fame has spread far beyond South Pasadena. Plenn said that the store has been listed over the years as one of the top toy stores in the nation by USA Today and Buzzfeed.

He said a family in China even heard about the store online and came in during their visit to L.A. for a photo.

“The name draws them in, but we have a well-curated store. Our goal is not to be your ordinary toy store,’’ Plenn said.

And boy, that’s the truth. Try going into a toy store or department store (if you can still find one) and have your child start banging on a toy musical instrument or start playing with the toy trains.

Want your 6-year-old to squeeze a plush toy? Go ahead.

There is even a Triceratops dinosaur that kids can ride that moves and makes noise.

Noise is music to Plenn’s ears.

“All my life I’ve either been a musician or worked in a toy store,’’ he said. “I love being around kids. My son was raised here. Now I try and find toys my son would have liked.’’

His son is grown and is a musician, but the children keep coming into the store.

“I know what to expect when kids come in because my kid came in and did the same kinds of things,’’ Plenn said. “It takes a certain kind of person to work in a toy store. You have to like kids and you have to have patience.’’

Actually, The Dinosaur Farm is itself a kind of a dinosaur. Plenn said that he counts only three independent stores in the area that really sell toys anymore.

“We are more unique than what you might find in an online toy site,’’ he said. “We encourage touching things. It’s more of a personal experience. Plus, we’ll wrap it up for you.’’

Plenn knows from his own experience what it is like when a parent has to buy gifts for several children’s birthday parties in one month. He and his clerks are trained to have lots of suggestions in a variety of prices.

There are finger puppets for 99 cents, and Plenn said he once had a $200 dollhouse.

There are the consistent sellers like a “stomp rocket,’’ which is where a child stomps on a cushion that launches a rocket. There is also Thomas The Tank toys, as well as “Calico Critters,’’ which are families of miniature animals.

Infant toys are selling better than when the store opened, and Plenn said that books — especially classics such as “Black Beauty’’ — are making a comeback.

Children also like science, and the store has a wall full of options, including an ice-cream maker that explains the science while you are making your dessert. There are circuit-board kits that are marked for ages 8-108.

Plenn has also seen his share of fad toys. Can anyone say, “Beanie Baby’’?

“Now that was wild,’’ he said. “Lines formed before the store had even opened. We had to limit sales to two per customer.’’

Parents hear about the store from other parents. I always bring guests with children to the store. Some of those same children visit again, and they want to head back to The Dinosaur Farm.

That’s what happened when I invited my friends, Pam and Dave Tomlin, to visit the store with their granddaughter Liz. She first came to The Dinosaur Farm at age 3 and returned when she was 5.

“What I recall from the toy store is the difficulty of helping Liz find the right balance between enthusiasm for the merchandise and restraint at the cash register,’’ Tomlin said. “It was hard for us to advise her on that since we never found it (the right balance) ourselves.’’

Plenn knows the feeling. He used to love dinosaurs when he was a boy. “Back then, we knew like five kinds of dinosaurs. Now, kids come in and they know dozens (of kinds).’’

A walk through the dinosaur section confirms that observation. There are not only dozens of kinds of dinos represented, but there are dino shirts; dino vests; dino bingo; and a dino microscope.

Anyone want to buy an Apatosaurus plush animal? Come on over.

“The dino kids are mostly boys, but we get a lot of girls now too,’’ said Alex Janetzke, who calls the store a “hot spot’’ in the community.

“Some regulars come in every week with their parents,’’ she said. “The first thing the toddlers do when they come in here is head to the train table (which is set up for playing in the back of the store.)

Some of the children who came rushing in to be engulfed by toys are now bringing their own children to The Dinosaur Farm.

“They laugh and tell me that ‘I used to come in here all the time when I was a kid and I played with the trains.’ And now the first wave of mothers that came in here are now grandmothers,’’ Plenn said.

“It makes me feel like a dinosaur.’’

Andy Lippman

A former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Associated Press, Lippman writes weekly about some South Pasadena person, business, issue or trend.

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