In Los Angeles, There's One Street the Weird, the Famous and the Well-Heeled All Love

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the L.A. of 1983, leisure-suited tourists still buy trinkets at the Farmer's Market, Val girls still strain their daddies' credit limits at the Galleria, and Beverly Hills' movers and sheiks still keep their limos waiting outside Rodeo Drive joailliers. But if you had to name an official site for every Angeleno's favorite sport of marathon shopping, Melrose Avenue would be the place.

Long an ultra-ordinary residential street, Melrose is now the Macy's of the imagination, a kaleidoscope of colorful, funny boutiques. The newest addition, Koala Blue, owned by Olivia Newton-John (page 110), has taken its place next to more established trading posts like Let It Rock, where Bob Dylan bought several '50s suits, and Neo 80, where the Stray Cats, ZZ Top and Styx pick up the custom-made outfits they wear on MTV videos. Other emporia sell drop-dead antiques or one-of-a-kind memorabilia or, say, a $950 giant flying-saucer top (circa 1948). At Off the Wall, Michael Jackson bought a life-size, animated chimpanzee on a unicycle ($3,500) to decorate his bedroom.

L.A.'s well-heeled used to come to Melrose just to eat; Jerry Brown's favorite hangout, Lucy's El Adobe, is on the strip. But now shoppers are more likely to pick up an Italian gelato (ice cream) or a Kamikaze health shake (ingredients include fresh fruit, bee pollen and yeast) at I Love Juicy while strolling. On weekends, in fact, the avenue is a polyglot parade ground. Students and senior citizens mix with punk rockers, foreign tourists and such stars as Diane Keaton, who usually brings a camera, and Tony Perkins, who has said, rightly, "there's no Beverly Hills uptightness on Melrose." Mostly it's a street of youth. When you see a '55 two-tone Bel Air—and you probably will—the driver is likely to be a lot younger than the car.

Of course, the hordes bring problems. Parking is so tight that police do a brisk tow-away business (while Farrah Fawcett and Tatum shopped, their Porsche was hauled off). Rents have zoomed and merchants fret about losing their leases to chain stores looking to get in on the action. But that's the future; for now, they're happy to be profiting and enjoying the multicolored mélange that is Melrose. Put on your high-top tennies and take a stroll:

"This is the only place I'd have my store," says Bob Molinari of Fantasies Come True. "It's just a street, but there's something about it—enthusiasm and adrenaline. And everyone—the New Wavers, punks, gays, stars—lets everyone else do their own thing."

Four years ago, antique maven Molinari bought a small ceramic set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. "I put it on the shelf at home, and the whole room sparkled. I was hooked immediately." Molinari bought so many more Disney pieces that "every inch of my house was covered." So in 1980 he opened the shop and did $2,300 in business the first day. Now, although he has never advertised, he gets 400 letters a month from interested buyers. "It's so wonderful," he says, "to make a living from your hobby."

Molinari's hobby-cum-living looks like the souvenir counter at Disneyland—only his pieces range from 50 cents to $3,000. Wearing a Snow White watch and Mickey Mouse ears, Molinari greets customers like Martin Mull (who "had to have a glow-in-the-dark Donald Duck like one he'd had as a kid") and Bette Midler (who wanted sheet music from an anti-Hitler Donald Duck movie). His steadiest customer is Carrie Fisher. "When she comes in," says Molinari, "she just goes, 'I'll take that and that and that.' "

At Poseur, the store for punks, the salespeople are pasty white, tattooed and bald or wildly coiffed. Ron, a salesman, is tattooed all over. "I'm working on a lot of primal tattoos mixed with a lot of Christian ones," he confides solemnly. Several others sport paramilitary garb and spiked hair.

Which means, says Heather, a former employee, that "shopping here is the trendy thing to do. When I was in high school, I was called in by the principal. He said I was a distraction. Now they all look like this. You wouldn't believe how many mothers were in here with their credit cards doing back-to-school shopping for their children." Naturally, back-to-school takes on new meaning at Poseur: its trade is bondage clothes, spike belts (extra screw-in spikes: 50 cents) and bottles of orange and purple hair tints. "Ooh, these handcuffs are nicer than mine," moans one student. In her world the surest route to ostracism (can this be L.A.?) is tanning.

Jim O'Connor, Poseur's proprietor, is a quiet transplanted Briton who virtually never advertises "because I can't handle all the business. There isn't a teenager in the world who isn't susceptible to punk." Why not? "It means," he says, "doing what you want to do despite anybody's opinion."

"Ooh, that's sure ugly."

"My mom used to have one of those, and she threw it away."

Virginia Jacks is used to the cutting remarks. Since she opened Virginia's, which sells '50s furniture, she has often felt the need to tell denigrating passersby, "Just because you were a brat when this stuff was around, don't blame it on the style!"

Her regular customers pose no such problems. "Jack Nicholson bought these dippy little ceramic pieces while his stretch limo waited," she remembers. Laraine Newman and Diana Ross have browsed among the boomerang-shaped ceramic ashtrays, fiberglass-shaded floor lamps and kidney-shaped coffee tables. Says Virginia, "I like to call it 'mid-century subtle'—too subtle for some folks. I don't think the fat tourist from Iowa will ever come here," she says, without disappointment.

"If it's bigger than it should be, smaller than it should be or if it moves when it shouldn't, I want it," explains Dennis Boses, whose Off the Wall Antiques specializes in the large mechanical displays with which companies used to sell their products. He also has a pair of giant bees (from a '50s B movie) and a life-size electrical drum majorette. Boses constantly combs the country for such things. "I buy," he says, "by making a lot of U-turns."

So do his customers. Dennis has sold jukeboxes to Stevie Nicks, rocket-ship lamps to the Go-Gos' Belinda Carlisle and little World War I airplanes to Goldie Hawn. "People sometimes ask," he says, " 'How good is my investment?' I answer, 'You're smiling, aren't you? I sell smiles.' "

When Paul Glynn tired of Flint, Mich. winters four years ago, he gave up his job at a designer clothing store and moved to L.A. to sell un-designer '50s threads. On the way he saw a pickup truck with a macho cowboy at the wheel and a poodle with a bow in its hair peeking out the window. "It looked so great," he says. "I knew I had to call my store Cowboys and Poodles."

The unlikely name is familiar in Hollywood these days. Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh picks up sharkskin suits at "Cow-Poo," as the regulars call it, and Pat Boone came to buy some—yes—white bucks. "He said ours were the only ones like those he wore in the '50s," boasts buyer Jon Bok. Other hot Cow-Poo items include Davy Crockett belts, porkpie hats, surfer jams and anything pink. "If it's pink," says Bok, "it flies out of the store." Casing the goods, customers often exclaim, "People really used to wear this?!"

Yes, they're wearing it again—but maybe not for long. "The '60s look is taking over," says Paul. "A year ago we couldn't even begin to sell '60s psychedelic stuff. But now the kids who used to come in and bop are beginning to do the frug and the hitchhike." Not surprisingly, Jon predicts that '70s styles will someday reemerge. "I see leisure suits, pimp clothes and waffle-weave polyester coming back." Adds Glynn, derisively, "It's the today style at K mart." But if it ever becomes passé" at K mart, you'll find it on Melrose.

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