Lizzy Newsome, 34, didn’t know when she got a job at her favorite toy store in college that it would become her life’s work. After graduating from University of Texas at Austin with English and Japanese majors, Newsome continued working in the business and is now a toy curator at Kappa Toys.
“It’s one of those industries that – once you get into it – you get really hooked and it spoils you,” Newsome said.
Four years ago, Newsome founded Kappa Toys, a store that’s tucked in the back corner of Downtown Las Vegas’ hip Container Park. This shipping container turned toy store is packed to the gills with unique pop culture items for all ages, but especially for their typical customers: 25- to 45-year-olds.
“Obviously kids love coming in here, but Vegas isn’t necessarily the biggest kid-family city,” Newsome said. “We find that in a park that has so much young adult energy that age group can come back more often.”
Newsome said she prefers the feel of Downtown Las Vegas over the Strip because of the history and the vibe. All of the pre-60s Vegas films were filmed Downtown as the Strip wasn’t built until the 60s, when developers wanted to set up their own rules and taxes, so they moved outside the city.
“The Strip is a separate entity,” Newsome said. “For that reason, you really feel like the casinos are in charge. You can really feel that if you live here. Here the city still fundamentally is still in charge. You see a lot more police, and at the casinos you see the casino security. A lot of people don’t know that – the whole do anything you want, drink wherever you want – that doesn’t apply in Downtown because it’s inside the city limit so you have limitations about where you can have an open container.”
Container Park is one aspect of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, which was founded in 2012 and aims to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas. It offers a collection of shops, restaurants and bars, and a variety of entertainment options – from the Dome to Ms. Mantis shooting fire in the evenings.
“[Kappa Toys] is one of the oldest remaining stores in the park,” Newsome said. “It is a little bit like working in a fish tank, but overall – other than the storage limitations – there’s nothing wrong with it. Customers aren’t used to going to a toy store that doesn’t have a back. People are always like, ‘Do you have it in the back?’ and I’m always like ‘Where is this back?’”
One of Newsome’s favorite tasks is selecting the toys. From Rodys from Italy to an impressive secret box collection from Japan, Newsome’s shop carries an eclectic mix. And Newsome has the opportunity to use both her English and Japanese degrees – the former when editing postings, emails and communications for the business and the latter when she travels to Japan every few years to maintain relationships with toy vendors and get a feel for what’s likely going to be popular in America.
On an unusually humid, if not-especially-hot day (for Las Vegas), Anthony Montisano sits behind the counter at the back of the small novelty shop he and his wife started on the upper level of the Container Park development three months ago. A brick-and-mortar extension of an online store, Whoa That’s Fun is home to a humorous menagerie of mugs, socks, flasks and other products that deliver on the website’s promise of slightly inappropriate gifts.
With his youthful appearance and backward hat and golf shirt, at first glance he comes off more like a customer than an aspiring entrepreneur. However, as he shares about boning up on the latest trends in search engine optimization (SEO) and discusses his business strategies it’s obvious that he’s a serious and savvy businessman, the type who have made the eclectic collection of micro-businesses in the park a vibrant part of the downtown scene. Here’s what he had to say about his shop and being a part of the Container Park scene.
On the decision to start a novelty shop in a town that has one on seemingly every block?
I would say one of the things that I actually wanted to do a little bit different is we have novelties and some gag gifts but everything in here has a very functional purpose to it. So it's something that you can actually use over and over again and not something that you will toss in the dresser or like a whoopee cushion or something like that.
On what, besides the functionality, differentiates WTF from every other novelty shop?
Well based on the the branding and the name, we do get to press into some borderline gray areas. Some of our best-selling products are things actually do have an F-word on it so that's one easily easy differentiation.
On why he enjoys being part of the Container Park community.
I love the atmosphere of the park for sure actually love having a lot of tourists come in and be able to see where everybody's from and have conversations with people basically from all over the world.
Let’s be honest: Las Vegas swims in alcohol. While the casinos offer fountains of cheap beer and breezy daiquiri, journeying away from the Strip can help you find some of the hidden drinking gems Las Vegas has to offer – and one of the best is Oak & Ivy, located in the Downtown Container Park.
Established in 2004, Oak & Ivy is an American craft whiskey cocktail bar dedicated to classic mixology, unique handcrafted drinks, and high quality ingredients. Like the rest of the Container Park, this watering hole is housed inside a former shipping container, but the interior atmosphere and décor of lush wood accents, shelves of ornate bottles, and period staff uniforms make this place a classy affair.
For my morning visit, I was the first customer of the day, and was warmly greeted by the bowtie-wearing bartender Erik. After taking a stool, I was handed the menus showcasing an extensive assortment of rare beers and fine wines. Whiskey, though, is the showgirl at this Vegas establishment. There are plenty of ways to enjoy whiskey at Oak & Ivy, including “Journeys” that serve a wide sampling to satisfy the tastes of newbies and connoisseurs alike.
I wanted to try one of the unique handcrafted drinks. As a self-proclaimed indecisive bar drinker, I asked Erik to make me what he considers the best drink at Oak & Ivy. He selected the Apple Pie Harvest ($13), a whiskey cocktail made from apple scented Clyde Mays, Bar Keep Apple Bitters, and Allspice Dram. Erik calls this “a staple drink of Oak & Ivy – it’s one of our organic creations.”
The open-air Container Park, located in downtown Las Vegas, is home to a unique collection of stores, restaurants, and bars, surrounding a massive treehouse-inspired play structure at the heart of the park. Even underneath the July sun, children are running, climbing, and sliding their way through the three story treehouse as their parents watch from a collection of benches and chairs.
Though some of these benches and chairs are perched immediately surrounding the play structure, parents are also able to keep an eye on their child from the comfort of the patio areas of Bin 702, a wine and cheese bar specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches, and Oak & Ivy, a hip craft cocktail bar with a host of barrel-aged cocktails. The juxtaposition of these establishments against the background of the playground offers a glimpse at a larger shift towards a family-friendlier downtown Las Vegas.
Tressa, a bartender at BIN 702, has seen firsthand how the downtown area has changed over the course of the years. A resident since 1992, Tressa noted the revitalization of the neighborhood through the Container Park as well as other endeavors that fall under the Downtown Project umbrella headed by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, an online clothing and shoe company. Though there has been an influx of businesses and new developments in the area, the neighborhood outside of Fremont street has remained largely unchanged.
“There’s security at the door… there’s a monitor that watches the kids, and there’s security at the front gate too,” Tressa said. “That stops a lot of the riff-raff that comes in you know what I mean, because we’re still downtown.”
Ronnie Pless, a local artist preparing to display his art at an upcoming Second Sunday art exhibition, echoed the sentiment regarding Downtown Project, as his apartment building has been part of these same developments. He noted an increase in family oriented activities at the Container Park, such as a weekly movie night in the playground and a board game night hosted by Bin 702.
These developments have made the downtown area more welcoming, though there are still plenty of streets that locals recommend avoiding, especially at night. Fremont street itself continues to undergo slow development towards something more palatable for families in the area. For many visitors to Las Vegas, finding a great place to take your family across the street from a casino may come as a shock, but this art-inspired, enclosed space offers a unique, relaxing atmosphere for both parents and children.