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The epitome of fun

May 24, 2004

Alicia Robinson

The concept of fun may be as old as the human race, but a visit into

Jennifer Johnston's Balboa Island store gives visitors the impression

that she invented it.

Our Gang's General Store, a long, narrow shop on Marine Avenue, is

jam-packed with every conceivable type of toy, game and novelty. A

shopper can find retro amusements such as sea monkeys and Rock 'Em

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Sock 'Em Robots, classics such as crayons and kites, and popular new

toys like Wham-O's Battle Boogie, a boogie board with a swiveling

nozzle that aquatic playmates can use to squirt each other.

This month the store is celebrating its 30th anniversary under

Johnston's ownership and its 15th anniversary as a toy store. When

Johnston took over the store in 1974 she sold plants and antiques,

but the main focus was pottery made by her husband's brother, Michael

Ezzell of Laguna Beach.

As consumer trends changed, Johnston decided to segue into toys.

"We've always done a little bit of everything," she said. "We have

no real agenda for our buying ... so we don't really consider

ourselves a toy store."

Mixed in with all the toys is a selection of outdoor decorative

flags, strings of novelty lights and pirate-related merchandise.

Johnston prides herself on the store's personal service. She'll wrap

and ship gifts, and the store makes deliveries.

"We're kind of personal friends of Santa Claus and the Easter

bunny, so we help a lot," said Jill Piazza, a 15-year store employee

who started as a devoted customer.

Customers seem to like the store as much as Piazza.

"I have a lot of grandchildren, so this place is fascinating,"

said Corona del Mar resident Pat Carr, who stopped in to the store

because it's near her dentist.

She was buying wrist rattles for her new grandson and a

firefighter play set for another little one in the family, but she

said remembers some of the toys in the store from when her children

were growing up.

"[The store has] stuff you can't find other places, that's the big

thing," Carr said. "It's different."

Remember those trick candles that don't blow out, or the old "joy

buzzer" that would surprise the unsuspecting person who shook your

hand? Johnston said kids still love those.

"This is where a lot of the island kids' allowance is spent," she

said of her display of trick coins, gum that turns your tongue black

and other novelty items. "Kids love playing pranks."

Johnston seems in tune with children and their tastes despite

having no children of her own.

"I've watched children grow up in here, so I haven't missed out on

the experience," she said. "I'm surrounded by children every day."

Piazza thinks being kid-friendly is key to the store's success.

People come back, she said, "because we love the kids and we have fun

with them. I prefer them to adults, actually."

Our Gang's General Store is open seven days a week at 217 1/2

Marine Ave., Balboa Island.

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