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(The following two articles are from a series about store owners and collectors in New York)
Dorothy...'Cause You're Gonna Want to Shop:
Bondage Barbie dolls. Fuzzy Pink Flamingo Lamps. Barbarella clocks. Not only are we not in Kansas anymore, but you'd need a pretty fabulous pair of red shoes to get there from here.
Welcome to "It's A Mod, Mod World," a store in New York's East Village which offers a whole 'nother perspective in one-stop shopping. From the bright blue and green jewel covered storefront, to the "Notorious George" figurines (a clay sculpture of "Notorious BIG" meets "Curious George," complete with gold chains and guns), well, on second thought, let's forget the whole "Kansas" thing all together.
You could say this is a "toy store," but that doesn't begin to describe it. You'd have to combine it with an art gallery. A really fun art gallery. Skip the wine and cheese and go straight for the pez. Yes, there are tin toys and robots, but what's really the draw are the handmade pieces: a wild assortment of toys and objects made by local artists, including the owners. I must get a bigger apartment.
Rick Smith, one of the owners, had a business degree and was working in insurance. He "felt dead, until coming to New York." Yeah, alot of people do say that. But soon after arriving, Rick became inspired by an artist friend who decorated his apartment to look like "'Pee-Wee's Playhouse' meets 'The Day of the Dead.'"
Knowing there was much more where that came from, Rick started finding things on the streets of New York, picking through the garbage, and buying old toys from street venders on Avenune C, and then began transforming toys into sculptures with the things he found. He found inspiration in old Mr. T. dolls (don't we all?), Barbie dolls with parts missing, and badly translated packaging from other countries. "My apartment became an ongoing installation," he says. Which turned into a store.
Rick and his business partner, Keith Yip, who has a background in fine arts and fashion, opened that store almost six years ago. This is their second location, both in the East Village. When they opened the current store, they had one of New York's most infamous drag queens outside, serving lemonade. Which actually made plenty of sense. There is definitely a feeling of over-the-top drag style in the store. "I love fakery in design," says Rick. "The faker, the better." Both the inside and outside of "Mod World" is covered in huge, ersatz jewels, glitter, and feathers. Inside, there is a fishtank up front with fish -- real ones -- swimming between Elvis, Divine and Gumby. Past the fish, the walls are covered in clocks. Of course, Rick and Keith made the collectible clocks from cereal and detergent boxes, adorned with jewels and glitter. Mr. Bubble never looked so good.
Both Rick and Keith say that they were always inspired by Japanese imagery and toys. "The Japanese people who come into the store really understand what we make," says Rick. "They think it's cute, or it's funny, or they are just pleased by the aesthetic." Speaking of aesthetic, "more is more" for Rick. "I overdo everything. For example, I won't make two pulp-fiction themed candles; I'll make 500. I can't go half-way."
With a great look always comes some controversy. 'Cause it ain't easy being this fabulous. "Alot of things in the store are offensive to people, but I can't conform," says Rick. For example, "Mod World" carries the work of John Ross, a local artist, who created the "Notorious George" figures, along with "gangsta" versions of the Teletubbies, and gay Smurfs. His work, says Keith, with a smile, "warps the icons of childhood."
From the John Ross "Planet of the Apes" salt and pepper shakers, (my personal favorites), to the Jane Fonda glitter clock which says, "Get those legs in the air!", "Mod World" pushes the limits of art, toys and commerce. Many of the items in the store have become collectibles, including the first Barbie dolls that Rick ever made, done up in balloon tube dresses, and looking, as Rick puts it "like Susan Powter." Rick put the dolls in the window, with word balloons saying, 'Stop the insanity!'"
But, why would we ever want to?
Do toys have their own soundtracks? At "Strange Cargo," a store in New York's East Village, it certainly seems that way. Stepping into the small colorful store, covered in toys, cds, videos and vinyl, one gets instantly, happily, blasted back in time, when "Munsters" toys made you think of "The Ventures," and Barbie dolls were practically dancing the mashed potato and the pony. Looking at the "Fat Albert" lunchbox, sitting right behind the cash register, I can hear basslines of '70's funk, maybe some early Sugar Hill Gang tunes, too.
This was a time before pre-packaged licensing deals, before everyone told us what music went with what toys, which went with what movies. Maybe, as a child, I was as manipulated by cartoons and toys as kids are today (I was indeed a devoted member of the "Super Saturday Cartoon Club," and used to insist on wearing my "Super Saturday" pin on my pajamas, to sleep), but it seemed that the music associated with these toys and cartoons were subject to more interpretation than it is now, despite the fact that the Beatles and the Jackson Five had their own cartoons (which, when I was little, was a glorious thing). Now, we are now told by the media exactly what music goes with what visuals, rather than closing our eyes and trying to imagine it for ourselves.
I'm not saying it was better back then. But it's fun to step into a place like "Strange Cargo," and reminisce. Toys and music have a definite connection, and owner Scott Honour really understands that. Scott must have a great time, putting music and toys together, because it shows through in the spirit of the 2 1/2 year old store. In what other context would you see Kiss and Ozzie Osborne, sitting on the shelf, next to Donny Osmond and Boy George?
When I ask Scott what his favorite toys in the store are, like a true collector, he says with a bit of sadness, "my favorite toys in the store are all SOLD!"
Even though both the toys and the music are diverse at "Strange Cargo," the vibe is definitely '60's and '70's. Surf music. Garage. Rockabilly. Punk Rock. The Velvet Underground. The MC5. Josie and the Pussycats. The Archies. And need I mention the classic recordings of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, bellowing out inimitable (thank god!) renditions of '60's cover tunes, while their action figure facsimiles obliviously sit nearby?
Even the more recent toys, such as "Nightmare Before Christmas," and "Mars Attacks!" have a retro feel. One can imagine listening to "The Cure," and "Madness," (in that order) while hanging out with Tim Burton. And what of G.I. Joes? I asked a few friends of mine what came to mind, and got responses ranging from Glenn Miller to Jimmi
You don't have to look like everyone else while wearing everyday clothes.
Everyday clothes that don't look it.
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