Thursday, July 13, 2000

Keeping score? One more loss

        There's a ladder where a life-sized cardboard John Wayne used to be. And I couldn't find the whoopie cushions anywhere.

        Maybe they've already moved to the new place. After 54 years in the heart of Cincinnati, Brown Novelty Co. is moving. It's amazing they managed to hold on as long as they did.

        Finally, he just couldn't sell enough plastic kazoos at 121/2 cents per to make ends meet. It's always been tough to pin your living on hula skirts and fake dog poop. Exotic, for sure, but not expensive. Volume was the key. Traffic. But now Brown Novelty is surrounded by vacant stores. And occupied parking spots.

Fish ponds and bingo
        The new store is at 561 Reading Road, between Broadway and Liberty Street. It's 7,000 square feet — about the same as the current location at 312 W. Fourth St. — but it comes with 20 parking spots.

        Gordon Braun, who took over the business from his father, Charles, has coped admirably, even heroically. A customer, say somebody in charge of a fish pond for a church festival, might call on her car phone to say she'd driven around the block four times and still couldn't find a space.

        Lost in the morass of construction and about to lose her religion, she would be rescued at the curb by Gordon with a bunch of plastic leis and praying hands bookmarks.

        “Lots of repeat customers,” Gordon says. He expects to be out by the end of the month. “I'm glad we could find something in the city, even if it isn't downtown.” He looked at cheaper space, he says, in Blue Ash and Northern Kentucky. “But my dad loves Cincinnati. And so do I.”

        Loyalty. Kind of an old-fashioned virtue. Much like his emporium, where the whoopie cushion is about as naughty as it gets. A stern sign warns that you must be 18 years of age to purchase a stink bomb. Imagine that. People wringing their hands about carding kids for alcohol and tobacco, and Gordon makes them show ID to buy a dollar stink bomb.

        This store sells little white baby shoe nutcups. And blue ribbons that say “Super Dad” and erasers imprinted with “God loves you.”

        Most of Gordon's business is with schools and churches. Bingo cages, games, prizes. Fifty-four years of carnivals and festivals, fish ponds and ring tosses. He has watched a lot of his neighbors leave — McAlpin's, Mabley & Carew, Henry Harris, Herschede's, Burkhart's, Dino's and Newstedt-Loring-Andrews.

Love swings and whips
        A block and a half away is a new neighbor, another novelty store. A brass plaque proclaims “Historical Site, Food and Drink, Established 1864.” No food and drink sold there today, unless you count edible underwear. The new Hustler Store, “a unique boutique,” is much tonier than the store's previous location on Sixth Street. Candles and cologne, T-shirts and jackets. Along with, of course, implements (batteries not included). Whips are 25 percent off, and a trapeze, billed as “a love swing,” is on sale. Manager Mike Chiodi says he really hopes to make a profit with this store.

        The much seedier Sixth Street store was “really just to make a point,” he says.

        But I digress. This is about a store leaving a downtown increasingly barren and homogenized. And rather un-Cincinnati. “Nobody's fault,” Gordon says loyally. “The world has changed.”

        So, how's your store doing, Mike?

        “Business is real good.”

        E-mail Laura at or call (513) 768-8393.


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