Bang Guns and Wolf Men: Exploring M. Gordon Novelty Shop
On a Spring afternoon in 2001 I slipped out of my design conference early enough to explore Manhattan during prime shopping hours. The phonebook in my hotel room listed fewer Manhattan toy and novelty Shops than I expected, especially after I weeded out Toys ‘R’ Us, FAO Schwartz and the video game boutiques.
The M. Gordon Novelty Shop sounded promising. A phone call confirmed that it was still in business; however, I was an hour away from closing time. Fortunately, the store was located within sprinting distance.
I knew I’d found it when I saw a blue building sporting glorious multicolored signage. As I approached, a black-and-white Wolfman poster hanging in a window high above the entrance assured me that I was about to be in the best possible place.
At this point, before I entice anyone into making travel arrangements, I feel obligated to mention that M. Gordon Novelty is now among the many dearly departed retailers of its kind. It appropriately wound up in the hands of the same outfit that bought up Coney Island. It was operational for much of the twentieth century, yet I got to spend about twenty minutes within its walls. I still don’t know much about M. Gordon; the bulk of my knowledge came from my single bittersweet visit.
The feeling I got when I first stepped inside is difficult to put into words. The sense of history and mystery was palpable. Beyond the front door there was a vinyl rope blocking passage to the cramped shop floor. I stood behind it confused until the clerk nodded me in. I still don’t get it. Is this some big city technique? Does it deter shoplifting? Or does it simply contain the mystical forces inside the shop?
One of the walls was lined with hinged panels that you could flip through, like the ones that usually display posters. Only these were smaller and ancient, and they were brimming with gags that had been stapled on haphazardly. And they were really old ones. I immediately inquired about a couple of the most exciting items — a rubber monster and a pack of fake cigarettes.
“We don’t sell those anymore.”
“What about the giant squirting flower?”
Again I was confused, yet thankful that they were servicing the world by publicly displaying these joke relics. However, my gratitude couldn’t cover the pain I felt in my gut as I perused the unobtainable items.
“Do you sell this gun with the flag?”
“Um, yeah. I think I’ve got some of those.”
Forever later the guy emerged from the back with my pistol.
Ah, “the back.” The mere thought of the back of M. Gordon Novelty sends covetous waves over me. It really existed. Judging from the layout of the building, the storage area seemed many times the size of the show room. Considering the lack of updates to the front, what must the back have been like? My body could sense boxes that hadn’t been cracked open for decades, and obsolete merrymakers that had been kicked under shelves when Nixon was president. It must have been a wonderland.
As I continued to browse it became obvious that the clerk was in the process of doing inventory. He was not the glimmer-eyed little old man I might have hoped for, rather he was an oafish, no-nonsense loudmouth who didn’t seem too keen on offering his service to the customers.
“Ya got any more monocles back there?!” he yelled to an invisible co-worker.
“WHAT?!” he shouted as he left his perch annoyed. He returned with a huge box of costume monocles. He plopped them down, picked up a clipboard and seemed to struggle to incorporate the find into his existing monocle calculation.
I will always savor the moment when he finally looked up from his note pad. His face was flushed and he appeared genuinely perplexed as he spoke with his heavy Brooklyn accent to nobody in particular,
“Jeeeeeeez. We showa do have a LOT of monocles.”
This piece originally appeared in Kirk’s awesome Secret Fun Blog.