Kid 'n' Play

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Some days I feel like the female version of a man-child. Not to say that I consider myself emotionally immature or irresponsible. Well, I may be both of those things, but my point is this: I know how to have fun and I’m a kid at heart.

I blame it on growing up in the ’80s, when pop culture seemed to gravitate toward whimsical, childlike sensibilities. And in movies like Big and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure the hero was always a child trapped inside a grown-up body, living an idyllic adult lifestyle as dreamed by a child.

When I moved to this city straight from a one-year stint in stuffy old London town, I was pleased to find that the dream of the ’80s was alive in San Francisco. And like a lot of adult children in the city for the first time, I wanted to explore all the festivals, see all the sights, and dress in costumes for no good reason at all.

And when I discovered things like the Easter Day “Bring Your Own Big Wheel” race down Lombard, pillow fighting downtown on Valentine’s Day, kickball leagues, House of Air, the Seward Street Slides, the reasons to act the child just seemed to multiply. Yet the longer I live here, the more I’m discovering something: What’s cooler than acting a child? Having a child! Wheee!

Kidding. But I would like to live vicariously through one of those lucky little so-and-sos, with their shipwreck-themed playground at Dolores Park and their unrivaled access to the Exploratorium.

More recently, I’ve discovered yet another reason to envy the little ankle biters: their toy stores.

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One day I was swimming upstream in the deluge of rush-hour foot traffic on Cole Street when the crowd suddenly dispersed and there it stood: a new storefront with nothing but a lone sock puppet riding a vintage scooter in the window. The retro sign read “Tantrum.”

As I stepped inside, I walked past red-and-white-striped curtains, a mechanical seal, and a child’s tutu hanging from the ceiling to find a neatly organized oasis of ’50s-era toys, housewares, and even vintage clothing for the pint-sized.

Shopkeeper Amanda Weld, looking perfectly at home in an orange mod dress, showed me hand-knit animal dolls from Peruvian maker Blabla (with little pirate and clown costumes for the dolls sold separately), as Shirley Temple sang “On The Good Ship Lollipop” from an old turntable. On display nearby I found pastel-colored false Peter Pan collars, some of them matching in adult and children’s sizes. And when I noticed the miniature wool houndstooth jackets and brightly colored polyester bellbottoms made for very little people, well, let’s just say that it was enough to make a childless lady’s ovaries hurt.

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Another children’s store that seems to harken back to the days before Zynga and PlayStation is Paxton Gate's Curiosities for Kids. The perfect counterpoint to the original Paxton Gate, Curiosities for Kids is where, instead of mounted jackalope heads and taxidermied mice, you can find plush stuffed animal heads along with knitted “dissected animals.” If I were with a child that was deathly afraid of dead animals and the concept of mortality in general, this would be the Rated G option.

It’s said that the children’s shop was actually once an Irish morgue, with some of the original shelving still in place. These days, the shelves are perfect for showcasing handmade toys, magic tricks, board games, and well-crafted wall art. In the front foyer, original art is on rotating display, with exhibits all year-round from locals like Courtney Cerruti, who makes animal sculptures out of found objects like wrappers, toilet paper tubes, and wood chips

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Just down the street on Valencia, the home décor store Aldea has opened Aldea Niños, a shop that has all the logistics of parenting down, and with a discerning eye for design: high-end strollers, cribs, ironic infant clothing (this is the Mission, after all), and rare, imported soaps and lotions (for the grownups).

What’s surprising about Aldea Niños is how many of its items I want for myself, like the Boon Flo bath stream, an attachment for a bath faucet that allows the water to flow like a fountain. Or the slick vaporizer on display that Dieter Rams would approve of. And just like at Paxton’s, I’ll walk in for the toys, but linger for the inspiring local crafts adorning the walls.

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No one seems to know about design and children’s goods better than Kárikter owner Lewis Eden, an English ex-pat and former graphic designer whose Union Square shop is known for its Francophile proclivities and rare Tintin collectibles. I passed by the shop several times after visiting my dentist in a nearby skyscraper before I finally ventured inside. What I found was an amazing assortment of European toys and paraphernalia, with such beloved characters as Babar, Wallace & Gromit, and The Little Prince.

Tucked away beyond the high-end collectibles, I also discovered highly stylish kitchenware and Charles & Ray (as in Eames) office products. Some of Lewis’ favorite new items, as he is quick to point out, are his prized Jieldé lamps in a French modernist style that dates back to the ’50s.

Lewis also explained that the collection of foreign and silent film DVDs near the register – one of which is a Buster Keaton classic being played on a flat screen – were in part brought in to show Tintin author Hergé’s twentieth-century influences.

“It’s all connected,” Lewis said, apparently a Zen master of fusing high culture with childlike wonder. He tells me that a five-year-old boy once came in and was instantly mesmerized by a silent film being played in the shop, asking, “What is it?

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Another toy collector’s haven, finely curated for the anime set in mind, is located on a small stretch of Powell Street just off Jackson Square in North Beach. Double Punch has everything from Sanrio to Funko Pop! brand dolls to highly ornate figurines of Daft Punk members as they appeared in the movie Tron. Double Punch, with its above eye-level glass display cases and toy art gallery vibe, does seem a dangerous enabler of the otaku lifestyle. What’s more, it has a second floor with rotating exhibits for local painters and illustrators. I nearly drooled at Ryan Bubnis’ tree stump pieces with the cutest little happy faces painted on them, remnants of one of last year’s exhibits.

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Vintage toy lovers and others should explore the stretch of Valencia on 18th and further south for novelty shops like 826 Valencia’s pirate shop along with both Paxton’s shops and both Aldea shops. Cole Valley’s Tantrum is conveniently located across the street from retro diner-themed Ice Cream Bar, a great destination spot for a trip with the kids, or an adventurous first date. Double Punch is great as a side note to a hike through North Beach, but if venturing far, best to look at the exhibits and new items lists on their website first.

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Published on November 8, 2012, 2012

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