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Fodder for your Inner Child
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 19, 2004
Ever pine for the novelty stores of your childhood, those quaint little get-ups that could be found on every street corner and painted a proverbial picture of Americana and its essentials? I can see it now: glass jars dotted with gum drops, marble-top counters sporting multi-colored pens, fire engine red stools made for lazy lounging and imbibing ice cream sodas. Getting nostalgic yet? Um, probably not, unless you grew up in the 1950s. All the same, avatars of the five and dime stores of yore, despite exponentially inflated prices, are popping up everywhere. Upgrades usually preclude classics like the rubber chicken, but vintage kitsch like mood rings and Wonder Woman action figures are always enough to indulge the inner child raised on sitcoms and pop mythology.
With a name like Great Stuff, here's a shop that doesn't hedge about its simple treats. A homey enclave replete with eclectic goodies for home, bath, and recreation, this Sunset peddler is stockpiled with kitschy extravagances. Compartmentalized into smaller boutiques, the store has kitchen supplies hanging off one of the walls, garden tools on another, and toys and other leisure wares in the back. A floating island serves as both the cash register and an antiquated candy counter (stuffed with huge peppermint lollipops, salt water taffy, and the perennial favorite- the gum drop). Owner Laurel Norris has her merchandise assembled in such a way that it's like a library: labyrinthine to navigate, but arranged with meticulous care. Wacky refrigerator magnets, cookie jars in the shapes of mermaids and unicorns, flavored massage oils, and an array of kewpie dolls sum up some of the delicacies of this cutesy cultural attaché.
Happy Trails brings the cult of cowboy worship to life. With a range of memorabilia and Roy Rogers as its strapping mascot, they've got western, they've got hotrod, they've got rock-a-billy and they've got rock n' roll. With an impressive compendium of pop paraphernalia pinpointing the likes of Elvis Presley and Betti Page, Happy Trail- once a bedrock of Haight/Ashbury shopping culture- is the kind of place you shop for the person who thinks he/she has everything. Mint new-old stock includes Pee-Wee Herman gift sets, Wacky Wobblers (in Choo Choo Cherry, Goofy Grape, and Lefty Lemon), dancing hula dolls, fuzzy dice, the ever ubiquitous Dirty Girl bath accoutrements, and a fascinating book selection that ranges from 40s film noir to queer pulp fiction. Did I mention they also have an imposing clothing selection for all aspirants of kitsch? Yee-haw!
Heartfelt, more than some of its trendier, naughtier counterparts, is a vendor that appeals to our primal aesthetic sensibilities, plain and simple. The tiny shop is an explosive medley of color, funk and character. Candles, soaps, and cloth-covered journals for the adults, plus Glowworm nightlights and squeaking nun toys for the kiddies. You'll find jewelry, children's toys, vintage linens (in the form of 1950s aprons and 19th century Provencal sheets), illustrious origami papers from Japan, scratch n' sniff sticker books, San Rio knickknacks, and other goodies that'll have you scrabbling through your wallet as you think of all the folks you know who will love this stuff, from grouchy old uncles to the baby two doors down.
Wishbone peddles sophisticated fripperies to hipsters with dollars to spare, and the pull to buy is irresistible. It's a modern day "dime store," owners Gay Lam and Cory Vilano insist, but the only indicators of frugal know-how here are the walls of candy (obsolete darlings like Violet and Sen Sen and My Little Pony) and declamatory ribbons with phrases like "I'm a Big Girl." The shop's mahjong manuals and Asian fringe art publications are top-notch and can be found alongside the predictable trimmings: 60s era nudie cuties and sock puppets. Paul Frank wallets, faux Pucci purses, and Kate Spade day planners coexist with elephant-shaped salt and pepper shakers and skull-print sealing tape. My own personal favorite: a container of trinkets and charms- hot dogs, baby rattles, sloppy ice cream cone- that make me hark back to my third grade bingo days. Sure, it's stuff you may never put to proper use, but when in doubt, remember the age-old mantra: Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.
While the tawdry, enticing ephemera and plastics of the novelty shop practically gloat at their own gimmicky wiles; the sentimental essence underlying this vital entity shouldn't be undermined. Fodder for pack rats, nods to eras long gone, the inessential potpourri of gifts and tchotchkes will make more than just the impulse buyer preen with pleasure.
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 19, 2004