Frustrated as a Filmmaker, Nathan Cohen Winds Up with the Novelty Store of His Dreams

updated 03/05/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/05/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

As proprietor of the Last Wound-Up, a matchbox-size Manhattan store specializing in tiny mechanical toys, entrepreneur Nathan Cohen, 51, approaches each sales pitch in a spirit of playfulness. When a retired professor wandered into his shop a couple of weeks ago. Cohen ambled over and set loose a toy chicken, which strutted a few steps, laid an egg and walked on. "Available for a poultry price." announced Cohen. "Nothing fowl about it." After auditioning several of hundreds of other toys Cohen stocks—everything from waddling penguins to a musical toothbrush that plays Strangers in the Night—the professor bought five, for $32. "That's four times as much as I meant to spend when I came in." he admitted. "As Nietzsche said. 'In every man there is a child who wants to play.' "

In fact, the love of little toys that go click is apparently providing a healthy income for Cohen, who will say only that his success has exceeded his expectations and that he can easily pay the rent for his shop on trendy Columbus Avenue. A struggling documentary filmmaker before he opened the store four years ago. he now spends his days—in a Greek fisherman's cap and a T-shirt that reads. "Don't Postpone Joy"—winding assorted thingamajigs and peppering unwary customers (he calls them "victims") with lead-weight puns. "Guaranteed not to flounder," he assures a woman eyeing a spouting whale. He informs another customer that a walking dinosaur skeleton is anatomically correct, then adds slyly, "I make no bones about that statement." A tiny typewriter with moving parts is "for the carriage trade": a dogged panda that keeps climbing a ladder, only to fall back down, he calls "The Story of Life." Cohen's catalog begins with the "Tin Commandments." which include "Windups spring eternal" and "He who winds up first will never wind up last."

On a slightly more serious note, Cohen has a theory about why adults, who constitute 90 percent of his customers, are hooked on windup toys. "We lead push-button lives," he says. "The more we become automated, the more we want toys. When we wind them up, we're becoming involved, giving them life."

The shop itself has become a large part of Cohen's life. Divorced, with no children, he's there six days a week. "It's no longer a store," he says. "It's a living room with a big party going on." For those whom life has wound a little too tight, there is no finer place to wind down.

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