At Boston's Venerable Joke Shop, Hecky Bengin Says Peddling Old Tricks Taught Him to Be a Fun Guy
It's best not to have rigid rules about behavior at Jack's, the country's oldest joke store, which has been hawking cheap laughs to customers since 1922. Among the more than 1,000 gags in the store are the "classics"—Groucho noses, hand buzzers, rubber spiders, candles that won't blow out, clocks that run backward, tea bags that turn the water blue and, of course, whoopee cushions (regular 98 cents, louder version, $1.19). For clients with a more bizarre sense of humor, Jack's also carries fake vomit and exploding lipstick, while those who lean toward even more infantile laughs can choose from a wide range of ersatz excrement. Dog Poo goes for 98 cents; Doggie Poo Poo, $1.25; and deluxe Dog Doo Doo, $1.49. "I sell over 100 gross of that a year," says Hecky. "It's incredible!"
Some things have changed since '22. The spilled ink bottle has gone because hardly anyone uses bottled ink. Rubber chickens—"a huge item"—have dropped from $20 to $5.98 since Japan and Spain entered the market. But principles haven't changed. "The best gags are the simple ones," says Hecky. "You try it on one person, it's over, and then you go on to the next person. You should be able to work it 30 times at the same party." And down the ages, too. "Grandmothers," Hecky says, "tell me they want to buy their grandchildren the things their parents bought them here."
Though many celebrities have passed through its doors—Walter Cronkite, John F. Kennedy, Henny Youngman, Phil Esposito, Larry Bird—Jack's caters to anyone with a funny bone. "We get the elderly, the young, the rich and the poor," says Hecky, "as well as those looking for something a little...'snappy' is the word. I never say dirty. That's all in the mind.
"Jokes and tricks are an escape," he adds. "When economic or worldwide tensions are the greatest, this kind of stuff moves faster. We're selling happiness. A lot of what we sell winds up in hospitals. That makes me feel tremendously good."
Born and raised in Boston, Bengin was a young grad of Dorchester High when, in 1948, he met Phyllis Goldberg, whose father had founded Jack's. Hecky and Phyllis were married two years later (they have two grown children). At 21, Bengin became the store's manager. "Before I got in this business I was a very shy guy," he claims. "Now I'm extremely outgoing. In elevators I talk to the person next to me. Nobody else does that. It scares me." He has also become, in his way, a sure guide to public taste. The dollar-bill snatcher, which pulls bills out of reach with a nylon line, is still, as always, the No. 1 best-seller. Jimmy Carter masks don't move ("people feel sorry for him"), nor do Lady Di masks ("too pretty"), but Nixon and Reagan likenesses sell like rubber hotcakes. No? How about a lead crystal ball made of lead? Price? Glad you asked. "It goes for $135," Hecky says, "but we can talk about it." In any event, it would be wise to check Hecky's hand for a buzzer before shaking it.