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It’s no puzzle to find family fun

Games: Family game night gains in popularity, includes puzzles and more

Posted: June 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Sophia Colon and her son Franco, 4, of Valencia, shop for toys at Puzzle Zoo. Among the puzzles for sale at Puzzle Zoo is the $300, 32,000-piece puzzle featuring the art of Keith Harring. Once completed, the finished puzzle measures 15-by-10 feet. Puzzle Zoo offers a variety of games and puzzles, as well as toys, learning games, novelties and m...

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Unlike most kids her age, Ashley Green, 11, of Valencia, is not fond of video games. She prefers to play with physical toys, ones that challenge her mind.

So every two weeks, Ashley and her mother, Christine, make the trek to Puzzle Zoo in the Valencia Westfield Town Center Mall, where Ashley is allowed to pick out something new.

“It’s like cool antiques and unique toys. I like stuff you can play with and do things with,” Ashley said.

Puzzles and more
Puzzle Zoo, a small, family-owned California chain of toy stores, focuses on distinctive products ranging from vintage Star Wars light sabers and action figures, to learning games to, of course, puzzles of every size.

Ashley has completed up to 500 word-puzzles all on her own, which makes her mother very happy.

“I like Ashley to use her imagination. She’s curious, and these toys allow her to experiment, which is nice,” Christine Green said. “I don’t mind spending money on toys like this.”

The concept of a family night, centered around puzzles and games, has spurred increased interest in puzzles and games.

“Family game night invites families everywhere to turn off the outside world for a short time and create memories together,” said Belisa Anzalotti, senior director of U.S. marketing for Hasbro Games.

Puzzle Zoo
That’s music to the ears of owner Jay Demircift, who opened the first Puzzle Zoo in Santa Monica’s popular Third Street Promenade in 1993. Demircift, a former clothing retailer, wanted to offer the toys customers often couldn’t find in larger toy superstores or big box outlets, so he and a partner created Puzzle Zoo, which went on to open locations in Costa Mesa, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles and finally, Valencia.

Puzzle Zoo appeals to connoisseurs, as well as the general public, said Demircift.

“We might have 10 different Monopoly games. We like to offer a variety to our customers,” he said. “I’m a collector myself and it’s always exciting to see new stuff. It can be a simple wind up toy that does a flip. It puts a smile on your face.”

More than puzzles
The festive store packs a lot in a small space, with hundreds of smaller items such as tin lunchboxes and novelties lining the aisles.

“Because we don’t have to carry a massive inventory, we can fit the same amount of products as a store four times our size,” Demircift said.

On the far end, there’s a glass case with Star Wars and Rat Fink memorabilia, as well as more modern Japanese anime figurines and books.

I Heart Guts, a series of plush organ toys urging its users to “love your insides,” features stomachs, livers and hearts, true to life in construction, with comic book character faces.

The plush toys, located near the cash register, attracted the attention of Analyse Cortez, 13, of Valencia and Maddy Caldwell, 14, of Valencia.

The friends stop at Puzzle Zoo whenever they’re in the mall. “This is where we get all of our friends presents,” Maddy said.

“It’s one of the best stores around. It just has every random thing you might need,” Cortez said.

Largest puzzle
In the front of Puzzle Zoo, there’s the largest puzzle currently on offer in the world, a 32,000 piece gargantuan featuring the art of Keith Harring. Retailing for $300, when assembled, the puzzle measures approximately 15 x 10 feet.
“It comes with a cart to carry it out of the store,” Demircift said with a smile.
Puzzle Zoo also carries Mel & Doug puzzles, a line with wooden pieces and chunky that caters to children as young as age one.

Learning puzzles
“In general, puzzles are great for cognitive learning, coordination and concentration,” said store manager Judy Greenberg. “Most of our games require that you interact with another person, something that seems to be missing these days. You know, we didn’t have the electronic games that are so popular now when we were growing up, and we all didn’t turn out so bad.”

Some of Puzzle Zoo’s smallest customers enjoy the store’s new mylar balloon pets with feet that “walk” across the floor, or Calico Critters, collectible resin animals. Youngsters are also offered their own shopping carts.

“I never imagined I’d hear so many children cry when they leave the store,” Greenberg said. “It’s like a little paradise for them.”

For kids and adults
According to Greenberg, a former toy manufacturer sales representative, Puzzle Zoo is the only store in the Santa Clarita Valley to carry high-end chess sets, some sculpted in ebony, others crafted from resin, retailing for up to $200 or more.

The chess sets and old-school games such as Rock-Em Sock-Em Robot and Pick Up Sticks, make Puzzle Zoo as popular with adults as with kids.

Demircift himself likes nothing more than to break out an authentic Star Wars light saber. When it lights, Demercift flashes a wide grin.

“It’s still personal after all these years. I pick out the toys. I have kids. I think about everything you see here,” he said. “We try to bring all elements to Puzzle Zoo, from fun to educational to useful.”

Giving back
Puzzle Zoo is seeking to launch a “ZOOm Into Dollars” program with Santa Clarita Valley schools. Once approved by the school districts, “ZOOm” coupons will earn customers 10 percent off every purchase, while 10 percent of every purchase will be donated to the school of their choice. “We want to give back to the community,” Demircift said.

Puzzle Zoo at Valencia Westfield Town Center, 24201 Valencia Blvd., Suite 1278, Valencia. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (661) 222-2260 or visit www.puzzlezoo.com.

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