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Spencer's Gifts: 6 decades of kitschy fun

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Tomorrow, Nov. 1, the rest of the shopping mall, wherever that shopping mall may be - and Spencer's is in 600 of them - can begin its holiday shopping bonanza/assault on sanity.

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Spencer's Gifts, which sells wriggling skeletons and Whoopie Cushion costumes and mullet wigs and rubber rats and individually severed arms and hands and feet and skulls that howl and motorized mental patients that shake and plastic poop and (intentionally) spicy chewing gum and chewing gum that smells like fish and giant bats with red eyes you hang from the ceiling, and, and, and...

huff, huff, huff

...and several types of lava lamps (with skulls or without) and giant plastic goblets with "Pimp" on the side and marijuana-leaf ice-cube trays and Motley Crue T-shirts and Guns N' Roses T-shirts and Megadeath T-shirts and Iron Maiden posters and velvet dragon posters and velvet Bob Marley posters and shot glasses and beer bongs and Viking helmets and "Support Bad Girls" ribbon magnets for the car and hand shockers and rubber chickens and finger-less gloves and, and, and...

huff, huff, huff

...and studded Fall Out Boy belts and crossbones belt buckles and trick birthday candles and fart powder and purple lights and sex toys and posters of dogs playing poker and neon Scarface rifles and Kiss mirrors and remote-control fart machines and laser pointers and greeting cards and drinking games and beer lamps and fairy clocks and bamboo curtains and hillbilly teeth, just turned 60 years old.

Age has not mellowed it.

But only deepened its charm.

Today is Halloween.

Spencer's busy season.

Tomorrow, Nov. 1, the rest of the shopping mall, wherever that shopping mall may be - and Spencer's is in 600 of them - can begin its holiday shopping bonanza/assault on sanity.

Today is Spencer's day.

We salute you.

For you are not just a store.

You are a rite of passage.

A fond memory of youth.

A week ago, for instance, on a weekday afternoon in the Westfield Franklin Park mall on Monroe Street, Kelly Chambers, 30, of Monroe, Mich., could be found perusing Spencer's Great Wall of Playfully Cheesy Halloween Costumes for Adult Women. It held plastic bags containing woodland nymph costumes and cheerleader costumes and schoolgirl costumes and sexy firefighter costumes and racy referee costumes and nurse costumes and female correctional officer costumes, and Kelly turned and said, "I wasn't really allowed in here as a kid."

But you went in anyway?

"Of course. I snuck in. And I'm still sneaking into Spencer's."

A few feet away, just outside the entrance to the store, a young woman watched her daughter skip in the mall's designated playtime area. Asked about Spencer's, informed of its 60th anniversary and asked if she had any teenage memories of the place, she would not turn her head and look at the store. Instead, she glanced at it from the corner of her eye - as if trying to avoid eye contact with an old acquaintance she had run across. "I'm grown-up," she said. "I don't go in there. It's sleazy. I wouldn't let a child go in there."

She wouldn't give her name.

But added:

"My husband and I - these days we walk by it and chuckle."

•

If you hadn't noticed, in the past decade or so, the shopping mall experience has gone upscale - not just Westfield Franklin Park mall but shopping malls coast to coast. There is now the upscale mall, the super upscale mall (such as The Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich.), and there is not much else. New malls are being built, aging malls are being renovated or shuttered, outdoor malls (such as the new Shops at Fallen Timbers in Maumee) are popular. Food courts seem airier. Sidewalks look shinier. A patina of scrubbed professionalism has settled over the shopping mall.

Yet Spencer's resists.

Its look has changed: What was a dark den of psychedelia in the '70s has become a dark den with a pseudo-industrial set design - it looks like the stage from an old Poison video, all beams and nuts and bolts and rotating lights. The anti-Eddie Bauer, if you will. The only Spencer's left in the Toledo area is in Westfield Franklin Park, but once there were three; indeed, it is the only shop in Westfield Franklin Park mall with a parental advisory sticker in its window - and one gets the impression if the sticker didn't blot out the merchandise behind it, that sticker would be bigger. It is a store that remains doggedly, sweetly disreputable.

Overstuffed. Ridiculous.

"When I first took this job [four years ago], I got a lot of knowing smiles," said Steven Silverstein, president of Spencer's. "My best friend's wife said to me, 'Oh, I love that store. That's the first place I ever stole from.' " In fact, he added, to this day, a few times a year, the corporate office gets a letter or two from an adult wanting to own up to their own youthful misdeeds in Spencer's.

"They're always feeling contrite and going 'I just wanted to apologize for whatever damage I may have done as a teenager ..."

He didn't sound angry.

Likewise, Peaches Ossege, who works in the Toledo store, said, "I don't think the other stores in the mall look down on us, but I don't think they take us seriously, either. It's fine with me."

Gather 'round, ye Gen Y'ers.

Listen up, young Millennials.

For once upon a food court, the mall was large and enclosed and windowless and spotted with yay-high silver-domed ashtrays. (People smoked in public!) Roving packs of teenagers hung out at the Orange Julius and loitered by the water fountain. There were the record stores you went into, the jewelry stores you never noticed, and the occasional organ shop you'd be chased out of. Some of it remains - the roving packs of suburban kids, the jewelry stores. But all that remains untouched is Spencer's, the last bastion of old mall culture. Be thankful for this. For if your credit cards are bedazzled by the modern mall experience, here is a loud, blinking reminder of inconspicuous consumption.

That's a compliment.

"One of the main reasons stores pop out to shoppers is curiosity," said Pamela Denzinger, marketing consultant and author of Why People Buy Things They Don't Need. "And Spencer's is so driven by fads and quirks, it's always changing. It's pretty hard to walk by and not just look - the entire appeal is curiosity."

Toledoan Peggy Incorvaia remembers poking her head in as a teenager. "The further back you'd go in the store, the more taboo it got. So you did that." She's 50 now. "And know what? I still go and it has not changed."

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Indeed, at Westfield Franklin Park, Spencer's still comically stands out. On one side is a JC Penney, serious as ever. On the other, a tailor. In the middle, Spencer's, with a facade of faux brick, complete with faux graffiti. Inside, it's a sensory assault. Stuff you don't need looms from every corner, willy-nilly. A plastic chandelier moans and quivers and slows - the batteries are dying. The light is dim. There's a smell of incense and packaging. You pass through bamboo curtains. Illuminated by the endless swirl of revolving beer lamps, it's every wood-paneled basement, with one exception: the faux cornerstone at the store's entrance, with a small "1947" chiseled in.

"I imagine that cornerstone is very fake and doesn't take up much space," said Kenny Bookbinder, owner of a novelty item business, Big Apple Enterprise. "They do like to fill every inch."

Back in the early '70s, Mr. Bookbinder provided Spencer's with one of its most iconic pieces of merchandise - the black-light bulb. Indeed, what makes Spencer's more of a cultural institution to many people and less of a business is how dedicated it remains to the black-light bulb and its cousin, the black velvet poster, along with the disco ball and the strobe light and the giant plastic novelty beer bottle - anything an impressionable customer might buy on a whim.

Which brings us to Jersey.

Of course, Spencer's began in New Jersey, itself something of a national totem to tackiness. It started as a mail-order business, operating a few miles from the Jersey boardwalk and that other Garden State monument to the tawdry, Atlantic City. Spencer's never left; a few ownership changes later - going from MCA to Universal Studios to its current owner, GB Palladin, a private equity group from Boston - its corporate offices remain in Egg Harbor, N.J., within smelling range of the New Jersey shore. (Asked if he'd ever been to the corporate office, one local Spencer's clerk said: "I've never been. But I've been to Jersey.")

"Spencer's represents the gentrification of mom-and-pop novelty stores," said Matt Donahue, a pop culture instructor at Bowling Green State University. "It came about as the novelty item became more about what's hot in pop culture than gags. Some mom and pops are around, but after Spencer's, you had to look hard to find them." For example, the Fun franchise remains - Uncle Fun, opened 20 years ago in Chicago, and its sister, the Cleveland gag shop Big Fun. But Steve Presser, who owns Big Fun, points out the rise of Spencer's also meant the rise of the "risque novelty and the decline of the little guy."

Which started decades ago.

"The novelty is no longer something you go out to buy, but an impulse buy now," Dorothy Belshaw, president of the New York International Gift Fair. "It's more integrated into stores, so I think you've got to give it to them for focusing on it over 60 years."

Spencer's first mall shop opened in 1963, and if you have not been in one in years, what strikes you is how entirely non-nostalgic it is. Its appeal remains strictly for young people - not to generations with fond memories. Even the strobe light is no longer a strobe light but a "retro strobe light." The poster rack still makes a sound of slapping steel.

"But nostalgia to them is like 1993," said Mr. Bookbinder. "I remember talking to one of their buyers and they're just kids, like 25. She wanted to know if I was making a broken-down toy car or something. I said 'You mean, like a jalopy?' I'll never forget it. She asked, 'What's a jalopy?'"

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.

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