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The 99-Cent Archeologist

Riley Ray Chiorando is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

When it comes to discount retailing in Los Angeles, there are two main players: the 99 Cents Only Stores chain and rival Big Lots. At Big Lots, with its higher price points, there’s more variety. You’re offered $10 dish sets, a plethora of small appliances, and lawn furniture so reasonably priced you don’t feel so bad when you forget it at the beach.

Among the four-quarter bargains at 99 Cents Only Stores, though, you can find something far more valuable: the truth.

“There’s a cycle to a product,” says Rachel Jacobs, the company’s vice president of buying. “And we get a lot of products at the end of their cycle.”

Visiting any of the 225 99 Cents Only Stores in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas is a lesson in product cycles. When a trend, a product or a celebrity’s time is long past, the terminus of its slide is often a 99 Cents Only shelf. Walking the aisles--as we did recently at the North Hollywood, Miracle Mile, West Hollywood and Hollywood locations--offers an undeniable glimpse of who and what is no longer hot. Jacobs calls it “the last stop.”

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And at that last stop, handlers, publicists and managers are as useless as screen doors on a submarine. The 99 Cents Only Store is honest. It’s absolute. It’s astounding in its simple and accurate measure of what, at the moment, is circling the pop-culture drain. Anna Kournikova, the Backstreet Boys, the Barbi Twins--no matter how high-flying they once were, today they’re available for less than four quarters, plus tax.

Rarely has truth been so affordable.

Low-Carb Anything

Items: Carb Options Nougat bars (Chocolate & Skippy Peanut Butter), Carb Options Original Barbeque Sauce, Health Valley CarbFit Peanut Butter Cookies, CarboRITE sugar-free bread mix, Post Carb Well High Protein Cereal (Golden Crunch flavor)

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The time it takes for items to debut in 99 Cents Only aisles can range wildly. A 2005 calendar might hit the shelves well into spring. Coloring books from canceled children’s TV shows can arrive a full generation after the toddler tastes that spawned them. In fact, going by the recent arrival of 1998 pop star merchandise, the bulk of Clay Aiken bobbleheads may not debut in these aisles until 2012. The only regular exception is when a grocery trend goes south. In a rush to beat stamped expiration dates, a fad cuisine will crowd the aisles, a flash-flood of four-quarter foodstuffs. The working poor then get a chance to indulge in whatever diet fad the white-collar crowd recently had been ingesting at top dollar.

Queen Amidala Galactic Body Wash, Phantom Menace Book Covers

“Star Wars” used to be the gold standard for marketing. Once you could EBay a Millennium Falcon and cover half your rent. Then came Queen Amidala and her Galactic Body Wash. Admittedly, during this round of “Star Wars” merchandising, the profiteers would slap the logo on anything short of mustache wax. Still, if you’re going to shill, at least consider the characters. Because there’s only one thing kids hate more than stone-jawed female Kabuki heads, and that’s letting Natalie Portman’s iron-makeup face see you in the tub.

As for the book covers, you have to feel bad for third-graders who got stuck with these in 1999. Of the four, the best choice is the villain Darth Maul. After that, it’s the slippery slope of public-school humiliation. You’ve got Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon, Jake Lloyd’s anti-emotive Anakin or, worst of all, that insipid spirit of the prequel films, Jar Jar Binks. George Lucas can crow about record grosses from “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith” all he wants, but my guess is that in decades to come, unsold Jar Jar merchandise will still be available for less than a buck.

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“The Incredible Hulk” Gift Set

Sometimes you blame the license, sometimes you blame the product. This anomalous item from the Hulk movie franchise is about the only thing that isn’t director Ang Lee’s fault. A Hulk wallet and coin purse? The subtext here is not “Hulk SMASH!” but “Hulk SAVE!” Gamma-powered fiscal responsibility? Oh, that’s just wrong.

“Shrek 2" M&M;'s Minis Dispenser

I only figured out this complicated cuckoo clock-like dispenser with the help of a woman who was repulsed by it. She was disturbed that the reward for my efforts was the dispensation of booger-colored mini-M&M;'s. While I don’t think this promo will affect the franchise in any way, I’m guessing it scarred a fair number of parents who helped their kids get to the “treat.”

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Politicards

The Nader-esque logic of lampooning blue and red state heroes in the same product not only failed to double the potential market for this product, but it also apparently alienated the regular banner-wielding wackos on both ends who usually buy this schlock. Thus the novelty arrived at 99 Cents Only Stores just in time to be completely dated.

“Fodor’s Pocket: Istanbul” (2001 edition)

Here, like a dino gene embedded in amber, is a reminder of a time when U.S. citizens actually took vacations to Islamic countries. In 2001, Fodor’s gave us this nifty little all-in-one guide to Istanbul’s cafes, people and night life. Yet post-Sept. 11, it seems a bit unloved, even radioactive. Its publisher may want to rename the next edition “Fodor’s Pocket: Constantinople.”

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“Jump the Shark: When Good Things Go Bad,” by Jon Hein

Sometimes, in addition to truth, 99 Cents Only Stores sell irony in bulk. “Jump the Shark” was a simple concept, a phrase that isolated the moment when something cool turned uncool. The idea--based on a cornball moment in the popular TV show “Happy Days” when Fonzie jumped a shark while on water skis, and afterward the show never seemed quite the same--spread like a virus through the popular culture. Seizing on the success of his website, “Jump the Shark” creator Jon Hein was given a book deal. It was the high point of a cultural buzz-run built of only three words. Today, three years later, that $19.95 hardcover is available at 99 Cents Only Stores. It’s official: “Jump the Shark” has now jumped the shark.

David Hasselhoff’s “Bail Out” DVD

There’s apparently a category that’s below direct-to-video at the local Blockbuster, and that’s the DVD section at 99 Cents Only Stores. For less than a dollar you can get the best in public-domain movies, the cartoons of semi-famous characters and random episodes from TV’s black-and-white years. That the fine work of Mr. Hasselhoff is somehow lumped in this level . . . well, that’s just a coincidence.

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Official Major League Soccer Figurine Key Chains

With players such as Frank Klopas, Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and the wild-haired Alexi Lalas, Major League Soccer wagered that the United States would win big in the 1994 World Cup and the players would return home as heroes to a new generation of American soccer fans. They were partly right. The American women won big five years later. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain returned home as stars who inspired legions of young girls to believe in success, sports and themselves. They became icons. The guys became key rings.

“Memories of Madison County: The True Story of My Romance With Robert James Waller,” by Jana St. James

Ah, Madison County fever, when America was all about middle-aged passion! In theory, this 1995 memoir was about one woman’s real romance with Robert James Waller, the soulful author of “The Bridges of Madison County.” In photo reality, Waller looks less like a lust-filled Clint Eastwood and more like a mayonnaise-filled Garrison Keillor. Confronted by this ugly truth, America, whose romantic instinct already was shifting toward “Il Postino” and the poems of Pablo Neruda, burned this “Bridges” tag-along. The lesson? If you’re going to sell romance, keep ugly off the cover.

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“Ozzy Knows Best: An Unauthorized Biography,” by Chris Nixon

This of-the-moment $11.95 book was offered for $7.87 at Wal-Mart, but it didn’t move there either. So, as of now, the Osbournes’ 99 Cents Only Stores clock is ticking. Kelly’s CD will probably be along soon, and Sharon’s bobblehead won’t be far behind. Ozzy will be fine. He has legions of metal fans to fall back on. But for Jack Osbourne, he may have peaked with acting roles in movies such as the Olsen twins’ “New York Minute.” Still, going by the recent arrival of Mary-Kate and Ashley merchandising at 99 Cents Only Stores, it’s not like there were a lot more of those Olsen gigs on the horizon anyway.

Digimon Official Fan Club Carrying Case, Pokemon Battling Coin Game Holder

In the world of kids there are only two kinds of toys: the ones you keep sacred in official cases on your very top shelf, and the ones you’re growing bored with. These are two official carrying cases for Pokemon and competitor Digimon products, and it’s safe to assume that if the carrying cases are here, the toys are now in the latter category.

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Barney Sidewalk Chalk Featuring Barney and Baby Bop

An official Barney product below the 99 line? Could it be? Is it over? Sadly, this 2000 product is in no way a sign of the big guy’s demise. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of trinket-buying for nephews, it’s that Barney is the purple-skinned 007 of kids merchandising. Each TV season a Barney item or two will drop into the 99 Cents Only zone. Barney will seem pinned into the deathtrap of diminishing popularity while a children’s show competitor appears to have finished him for good. A year later, Barney will still be hypnotizing kids with rewrites of public-domain songs. Bank on it. So my advice to frustrated parents? Use Barney’s insipid chalky head to scrawl subversive messages in the schoolyard, and take what comfort you can from that.

Three Stooges Key Chain: Larry

Moe is the leader. Curly is the rock star. Shemp has collectible value. Larry? Listen closely: Don’t make Larry. Tell people whatever you have to. He shipped yesterday. You can’t find the tracking number. Whatever it takes. It’s better that way. Trust me.

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Boy Band Bric-a-Brac

Items: “Backstreet Boys: The Official Book,” *NSYNC “No Strings Attached” poster book, *NSYNC “Official Tour Merchandise” thank-you notes and autograph books.

Less than five years ago, a ‘tween would have torn out her best friend’s eyes for anything here, especially the *NSYNC licensed stationery. The $12.99 poster book would have been perfect to cover bedroom walls and inspire pubescent passion. The hardback Backstreet Boys book, which once retailed for $14.95, would have been the ultimate proof of a fan’s Backstreet cred and the item to showcase with track lighting. But today you can get it all for less than the price of a Big Mac meal.

Spice Girls Figurines: Posh, Sporty, Baby, Scary

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With rumors circulating about a possible reunion, let’s examine these well-preserved relics from the moment when the Spice Girls all went downhill. In 1996, the group was wowing the under-10 girls of the United Kingdom. By 1997, Spice Power had crossed the Atlantic, generating hit songs, a movie and the ire of shocked, flannel-clad men who thought grunge would last forever. Which brings us to these 1998 figurines, which are marketed without Geri Halliwell, the group’s Ginger Spice. They are flash-frozen fossils of the 1998 Spice split, when Geri left her Girl Power gang, wagering that solo success was inevitable. The other Spices--Posh, Sporty, Baby and Scary--wagered otherwise, betting on their new, smaller Spice effort. They all lost the bet. Geri’s post-Ginger Spice career went Garfunkel and the rest of the Spices descended into the circle of UK minor celebrity. (Posh Spice had the good sense to marry one of the world’s leading footballers, David Beckham, and so remained in the news.)

Today, nearly a decade after plastic pressing, the remnants of the Spice divorce offer proof to disposable musical acts everywhere: Leave your overproduced golden goose alone.

Eisner-Era Collectibles

Items: “Jungle 2 Jungle: A Junior Novel,” by Nancy Krulik; “George of the Jungle” movie scrapbook; “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” reusable sticker book; “The Country Bears: The Junior Novelization”; “Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride” Pez dispenser; Energizer “The Lion King” collectible squeeze lights (Timon and Pumbaa)

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So who brought down Eisner? Was it Steve Jobs, Roy Disney, the Weinsteins? Ignore the men. Follow the merchandise. Consider these items. Separately, they’re all half-remembered pieces of schlock. Together, they’re a stinging indictment of a corporate leader’s decidedly mixed record, whether he was adapting French movies for American audiences (“Jungle 2 Jungle”), devaluing the catalog of hits by doing another direct-to-video knockoff (“Simba’s Pride”) or green-lighting a big-budget film based on country music-playing bears (“The Country Bears”). This isn’t merchandise. It’s bomb debris. The whole power struggle at Disney might have been avoided if Roy Disney had simply held an emergency shareholders meeting at the local 99 Cents Only Store. Michael Eisner would have left quickly and quietly after that.

“SpongeBob Squarepants” Pez Dispensers (Squidward and Patrick)

Until recently, anything from the SpongeBob Pez family would have been kitsch gold. Bob’s anal-retentive nemesis Squidward? Bob’s close friend Patrick? Finds like this should have been snapped up by the camp elite long before they got anywhere near sticky-faced kids. Yet here they are, next to the generically creepy assortment of bug-themed Pez dispensers. Is SpongeBob headed the way of Howdy Doody? While Bob’s lieutenants have gone under the 99 line, the star himself is nowhere in the aisles. Can he be far behind?

The Barbi Twins 2005 16-Month Calendar

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Hidden behind the Cowboy Hunks 2005 calendar, this $12.95 retail castoff offers more than a dozen cringe-worthy pages of doll-hair wigs, Sharpie-applied eyeliner and collagen Samsonite handles where the twins’ lips should be. This is the calendar for you if your ideal of womanhood is equal parts Elvira and inflatable love toy.

“Stuart Saves His Family” Original Soundtrack

Al Franken--star of Air America Radio, lion of the left, possible Senate candidate from Minnesota. Today. But 10 years ago, Franken’s skill set included saying " . . . and, doggone it, people like me” into a mirror as one of a long line of forgettable “Saturday Night Live” characters. Lorne Michaels hoodwinked studio execs into doing this 1995 movie, and a sensible man would have recognized the character’s limitations and said no. This is important: Franken went the other way. Today these soundtracks are priced to move at two for 99 cents and should give pause to hopeful liberals.

Anna Kournikova’s “Basic Elements: My Complete Fitness Guide” Video

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A video where the onetime tennis non-phenom exercises, sweats and jumps rope . . . at 99 Cents Only Stores? Damn that Maria Sharapova--sexy, sleek, poised and with the skills to win a major at 17. She’s Buzz to Kournikova’s now-obsolete Woody. And now here she is, next to the 1995 “Atlanta Braves Win It All” video.

NBC “Celebrity Christmas” CD

With the right stars you get Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” With the wrong stars you get this sound nugget for the Children’s Miracle Network. It’s the Christmas-song stylings of Wendie Malick, Jay Leno and a singing Anthony Ruivivar from “Third Watch.” And let’s not forget stars such as Bebe Neuwirth from “Deadline,” an NBC show dead long before the CD’s winter ship date. I hate to be the Scrooge here, but going by the multiple sale stickers obscuring the original price, I’m guessing it was one blue Christmas . . . at least for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Anne Geddes & Celine Dion “Miracle: A Celebration of New Life” 2005 Desk Calendar

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As a rule, self-importance and naked pride rarely sell well. Thus, here in the 99 Cents Only stationery aisle, we have Celine Dion’s cautionary tale. Did the world really need to know of her long struggle to conceive a baby? That’s debatable. But did the world need a merchandise line, including this once-$12.99 calendar with photos by Anne Geddes, that celebrates the diva’s eventual success? No. And yet, we have this remarkable offering that includes 52 photos “inspired” by her recent “miracle” child, Rene-Charles. Today the calendar sits at 99 Cents Only Stores inspiring comparison to the 101 Golf Jokes calendar next to it. The lesson? Even sappy soccer moms recognize a narcissistic extravaganza when they see one.

“Drudge Manifesto,” by Matt Drudge and Julia Phillips

“Drudge Manifesto” is Matt Drudge’s clarion call to the new media via the old media. A work that bills itself as “the Internet’s star reporter vs. politics, big business and the future of journalism,” it blares his creed out front: “IT’S CALLED FREEDOM. IT’S CALLED THE FUTURE. IT’S CALLED DRUDGE MANIFESTO.” Bombast aside, the truth is, we live today in a world that Drudge helped spawn--where “fair and balanced” can mean just the opposite, where fast is more valuable than accurate, where facts are reported forcefully but with no context. So in that spirit, here’s a simple fact:

The $22.95 “Drudge Manifesto” is now available in hardcover at 99 Cents Only Stores. Its pages, including the one with the dedication to Clinton-era tattletale Linda Tripp, sit just aisles away from Latin-market cleaning products. The books grow more lemony-smelling by the day. Is it karma? Justice? Mockery from a pantheon of gods? Let’s just let these facts speak for themselves.

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Britney and Christina: Together 4 Ever

Items: Shades of Britney women’s eyewear, Christina Aguilera 2005 calendar

Consider: Britney Spears starts with Lolita-pop hits; Christina Aguilera turns “Genie in a Bottle.” Spears goes for mature audiences; Aguilera replies with “Dirrty.” Then the cliche marriages: Spears hitches with a backup dancer, and Aguilera gets engaged to a record producer. It’s as if they’re locked in a twin death spiral of pop.

In Spears’ case, seldom has one celebrity seemed so at home in the 99 Cents Only aisles. With her playful Shades of Britney sunglasses, shoppers now can get a view of the pop queen’s glamorous lifestyle. Donning the shades inside one store, I can clearly see the generic canned chili in Aisle One.

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For Aguilera, it’s a calendar with a “Sybil” theme. She’s a sailor. She’s Marilyn Monroe. She’s a ‘20s flapper. It’s as if a drag queen had exploded. Look for the next likely dual appearance by the expiring duo at VH1’s home for elapsed celebrities. I smell “Surreal Life 8: Bellyshirts Gone Bust.”


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