Eclectic Avenues

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tired of jockeying for sidewalk space with the big-haired and breast-implanted patrons of the once-gritty Melrose? Then head east to Silver Lake and neighboring Los Feliz where, in addition to the 99-cent shops, their competitors--the 98-cent shops--and various taquerias and coffeehouses, there exists some of the most unusual shopping in town. From inflatable reindeer to Bigfoot videos and books on autoeroticism, the stores are a celebration of the frivolous and the freaky.

Where Melrose Avenue can be brash, noisy and blatantly ostentatious, Silver Lake is unassumingly hip and quietly funky, much like the people who live here. Attracted by cheap rent and good restaurants, artists, musicians and writers inhabit this place in disproportionate numbers, and the shops along Sunset Boulevard and up onto Vermont Avenue reflect their sensibilities. Shopkeepers seem interested not in commerce, but in creating retail extensions of themselves and in fostering a sense of community.

Here is a sampling of the eclectic shops that make up the scene.

Amok Books, 1764 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 665-0956

To an unsuspecting visitor, the Amok Books projects a deceptively calm image with its long, lamp-lit corridor, tiki decor and soothing ambient soundscape. But pull any book from the shelf--"Gay Priests," "CIA Assassination Plots," "Lady Killers"--and you soon realize that Amok is anything but Crown or Borders.

"Some people come in here and they get appalled," says the misleadingly clean-cut Stuart Swezey, Amok's 35-year-old owner. "They think it's horrible and they wanna leave. The next person who comes in is like, 'Where has this store been all my life?' It's more than just shoving something unpleasant in your face."

With atypical categories that include Control, Mayhem, Sleaze, Sensory Deprivation and Scratch 'n' Sniff, it's tempting to disagree. But what Amok does is explore aspects of human behavior that are misunderstood or unresolved and make that research available to readers. "The interesting thing I've noticed over the years is what people stack up. It could be Noam Chomsky and it could be something really sleazy, and that's the way I am too," Swezey says.

Amok began in 1987 as a mail-order business and independent press, printing something called the First Dispatch, with information on where to purchase the strange and disturbing books Swezey had in his own collection. The Dispatch has since evolved into the much glossier Amok Journal, a bizarre compendium of the occult. "There have been times when I've thought, 'God, how many more crazy books do I need?' " Swezey says. "But then I get really excited about all this information and processing it, and I realize there's a point to it all. You have to keep developing your mind."

Ministry of Aesthetics, 1756 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 665-1735

Throbbing dance music bounces between orange walls reflecting off blue AstroTurf, and into the tufts of yellow fake fur that line glass display cases. Blue camouflage pants and glow-in-the-dark rain gear hang on a fire hydrant transformed into a clothing rack, while swarms of lipsticked Latinas and their baggy-panted boyfriends groove to the tunes of the store's live deejay. If Dr. Seuss had been a raver, he would have created Ministry of Aesthetics--an extrasensory and ultra-tactile clothing store for club kids.

"[Ministry of Aesthetics] is for someone who likes to dress funky and has some sort of exuberance," says shop co-owner David Miller, 30, reclining in an orange velour easy chair and sucking a grape Tootsie Pop.

Opened in August 1994, MOA is an extension of the Mondorama clothing line, which Miller and his 31-year-old partner, Ezra Gould, founded in 1993. Like the scene it caters to, the store is a fusion of music and fashion, featuring clothes by young designers and live deejays in the evenings.

"Clothing is one medium. Music is another," says the black-clad Gould, a former punker-turned-cyberhippie. "The heart of Mondorama has always been communication and the exchange of ideas through different mediums. We really want Ministry of Aesthetics to be a cultural center."

While their clothing line enabled Miller and Gould to open the shop, the two don't consider themselves designers. And while Ministry of Aesthetics is, by all appearances, a store, they prefer to think of it as a pivot point for youth activity. On a typical Saturday night, 1,000 kids pass through to get information on where that night's rave will be. So, in addition to flamboyant outer wear, the store also sells body glitter, candy necklaces and 3-D backpacks--everything a young clubber needs to party it up.

"We're interested in inventing new ways to look and experience music," Gould says. "Clothing is just costume, so we're trying to make a new level of need that might be a celebration of individuality and of your own uniqueness or wackiness."

Mondo Video A-Go-Go, 1724 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 953-8896

Robert Schaffner, the shaggy-haired owner of Mondo Video A-Go-Go, sits behind the cash register fixing an "I Dream of Jeannie" videotape; a slim, brown cigarette burns in a nearby ashtray. "O.J.: The Interview" plays on an overhead television as a cluster of young men burrows through the video boxes in search of cult classics. With burlap wallpaper, Mondo Video's interior is spartan and grimy--somehow appropriate for a place whose top rentals are Russ Meyer's "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens" and "Manson," the documentary.

"This isn't for everybody," Schaffner says with a laugh, his voice husky from smoke, "just a select army." That army numbers about 3,500, with a freaky chic client roster that includes film stars, special-effects producers, musicians and locals. All have one thing in common: an interest in the sick and twisted that ranges from vampire and slasher films to the more specialized topics of mad doctors and Bigfoot.

But Mondo Video A-Go-Go is more than just a 9,000-title video store. It is also a meeting spot of sorts. "We do weddings and funerals," Schaffner says, pulling a gold-colored urn from the shelf. In it are the remains of Chi Chi, a canine porn star. On Father's Day, Mondo hosts an open mike for customers to perform, and on the Fourth of July throws a transvestite barbecue. "I work all the time, so I need to bring the party to me here."

The 34-year-old owner of Mondo Video first got turned on to movies that are "so god-awful bad that they're great" as a teenager, when he watched TV late into the night. Twelve years ago, with the 800 videos he then had in his personal library, Schaffner opened up shop in his hometown of San Pedro. "I thought it would be convenient to walk to work," he says half sarcastically. Eventually growing tired of the area, Schaffner packed up his videos and moved to the city. "My final moment in San Pedro was when there was a fistfight over 'Die Hard II,' " he says. "They just didn't get it."

Out of Our Heads, 3818 W. Sunset Blvd.; (213) 665-8697

"I'm about up to here with Whoppers," a customer tells Oscar Moreno, referring to Burger King's current "Toy Story" toy-with-purchase promotion. The owner of Out of Our Heads nods in sympathy, "It's what you've gotta do when you get into this."

As owner of this vintage toy store for adults and as a lifelong collector, Moreno understands the pack-rat problem. "I can't just go into a thrift store and find something that's in perfect shape and leave it there. I have to take it home," he explains with a big grin. "That's my personal psychosis."

The interior of Out of Our Heads contains the fruits of Moreno's disorder. Every inch of available space is taken up with, well, stuff. Black velvet rock 'n' roll posters clutter the ceiling. Big-eyed Keane paintings compete for attention with the vintage lunch-box display, and old rubber toys attempt to upstage a celebrity doll collection that features Kiss, Brooke Shields and the Church Lady.

"I was an only child," explains Moreno, "and while some may consider it spoiled, I consider it being lucky that there was nobody to share things with." But over the course of 33 years, Moreno has simply ended up with too much stuff. "After a while, I had so many things that I just decided to open a shop."

When he isn't busy collecting, or fielding the numerous phone calls he receives from toy enthusiasts who don't have the patience for serious collecting, Moreno is an artist, coloring the weekly Where's Waldo comic strip and picking up odd jobs from movie production houses. "When you're an artist, certain things motivate you," he says. "Toys are a tremendous inspiration to me."

Plastica, 3817 W. Sunset Blvd.; (213) 644-1212

Two inflatable deer and a fake turkey highlight the window display at Plastica, a specialty shop that sells nothing but--you guessed it--plastic. From fake cakes to Tupperware lamps and wood-grain micro miniskirts, Plastica carries both one-of-a-kind and mass-produced items made from the world's most popular polymer.

The brainchild of artists Carla Denker, 26, and Michael Calvert, her 20-year-old boyfriend, Plastica opened its doors in June. "We both loved plastic a lot," says Calvert, a lanky brunet who studies art at Otis College of Art and Design. "It's just a cool material. I like the look of it, and it's really versatile."

Wearing identical blue-and-white, lightning-bolt rubber thongs, Denker and Calvert, in addition to sharing serious interest in the artificial, have managed to fuse their artistry with a retail environment. Their colorful shop has a gallery in the back that features a different local artist each month. The couple also throws occasional Tupperware parties hosted by Pam Teflon, a drag queen who is the No. 1 sales "lady" in the business.

Attracting an art crowd as well as locals, Plastica has been visited by Pee-Wee Herman (who bought a 3-D postcard) and Mark Mothersbaugh who, along with his band Devo, wore sculptured plastic wigs and flower-pot hats in his hit-making heyday. "It was so rad," Denker says. "He bought an ashtray."

Keeping the store stocked with interesting items that meet the store's strict criterion can sometimes be difficult. Still, the couple has cheated only once, selling underwear with a silk-screened design of imitation cakes. "We kind of stretched it," Denker confesses. "The image was kind of like a plastic like . . . thing."

Virginia's, 4685 Hollywood Blvd.; (213) 666-8690

If Virginia Jacks looks entirely at home in her vintage furniture shop, it's because many of the items for sale here have spent time in her living room. Three to five years is the average stay she allows pieces before transitioning them from personal decor to retail store.

"The love affair is over," says the playful 48-year-old owner of Virginia's, flipping her auburn hair in mock abandon. "In my mind I still kind of own these things because I had them."

Among the first to see a market for '50s furniture in L.A., Jacks opened up shop on Melrose in 1972, where her rent was an unbelievably low $80 per month. But after spending nearly 20 years in the same block and observing first-hand the area's slow gentrification, Jacks moved her business closer to home and began carrying a wider variety of merchandise, with furniture from the '20s to the '70s.

The spacious and sparsely lit shop is filled with oddball items from eras gone by--orange globe-shaped televisions, '40s-style wire fans, chrome dinette sets.

"I get people before and after they shop at Ikea--people who want something different," says Jacks, as KLON-FM plays softly in the background. Larger stores may cut into her business, but Jacks is more interested in quality customers than quantity. "I don't want every guy and his brother coming in. I want informed people who know what they're looking for to choose to come in here." While sales may not be as good in Silver Lake as they had been on Melrose, Jacks says, "I don't like that flocking, herd thing. Silver Lake is all about being individual."

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