“Do you have a rubber chicken?” the woman asked Mike Wilner, proprietor of Brookline News and Gift in Brookline, Massachusetts.
“Sure,” said Mike, and went to fetch the chicken.
I recalled the conversation to Mike, speaking with him a week later.
“Sure,” Mike smiled. “I just got some more rubber chickens. I’ve got three sizes.”
In a yellowing local news story written years ago and laminated to a board near the Brookline News and Gift’s cramped entrance, Mike confessed to having a “sickness” for buying things. He has been buying things and selling them since he bought the store in 1963. Now you can scarcely walk into the place through the cramped front-to-back aisle from the door. There is barely room for two people to squeeze between the cigar counter and the greeting cards. It’s kind of like walking belowdecks into a 40-foot yacht owned by a packrat for 40 years.
And, though Mike emphasized that “Our principal business is cigars and pipes and tobacco,” it is the sheer profusion of novelties, toys, games, dolls, and bric-a-brac that delights child and man alike.
Here, see one shelf of one half of the crammed street display window: Harley-Davidson playing cards, a granite chess set, a selection of GBD pipes, a Victorionix Swiss Tool that seems to do everything, a Time Out alarm clock in the shape of a football, a cast iron cowboy bottle opener, a deck of Egyptian playing cards marked only in hieroglyphs, several pair of Bushnell binoculars, a collection of Beatles memorabilia Zippo lighters, a Hollywood tie rack, a Marine Band harmonica, a mini roulette wheel, Casio watches, a tool kit done up as a deep sea diver’s helmet, shaving brushes, a Texas map belt buckle, a Mini-Bear Jaws (yet another tool), a beautiful laminated cream and red Zippo lighter made by General Motors with the Chevy logo on it, and busts of Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare.
Once inside, your left elbow brushes the racks of greeting cards, which trend toward what used to be called “racy.” A proctologist examines a polar bear and announces, “You’ve got Polaroids.” Three Hassidic rabbis share a hookah under the words, “The High Holidays.” “It’s about my penis, Doc,” a man complains to his psychiatrist, who replies, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about a little thing like that.”
A nod to Mike’s concerns here for his core business. He claims to try to carry every brand of cigar made, and he comes close. He acknowledges that he can’t compete with the mail order biggies in South Carolina and Florida — “not when a Democratic controlled legislature puts a 30 percent tax on tobacco.” But his prices stay competitive, anyway. Punch Rothschilds are offered for $3.62, comparable to the cost north of the border in tax-free New Hampshire, at Two Guys. Mike has a back room filled to the ceiling with cigars. While I was there, he pulled out a gigantic box of Makers Mark tubos and knelt on the crowded floor, displaying them for a young woman buying for her husband.
Just past the cigars, the cash register hides behind more novelty displays. There is no open counter space anywhere, nowhere to sign a credit card slip except on your knee or on the back of a book. You can hardly see anything for the sheer abundance of merchandise, clinging like barnacles to every surface. Just ask Mike. He’s the man who has everything. And he works at it. He’s probably in his sixties, trim and fit from working on his feet all day, lifting, carrying, stretching, and stocking.
This day, two items tempted me: a refrigerator magnet fully the size of a piece of typing paper displaying “Guitars of the Gods” (all Gibsons, ES-335, Les Paul, SG, Flying V, and so forth; I’m a Fender man, so I resisted) and a panoramic puzzle of the nighttime Boston skyline (where wisdom won out when I thought of a four-year-old and 750 jigsaw pieces). Behind the guitar magnet rises the news stand, with — if one can say it — a rather innocent, if wide-ranging, collection of pornography (Juggs, Gazonga Goddess) and virtually any newspaper. Barron’s is tucked between the Nikkei Times and a Greek broadsheet.
Little boys love the gags, as Mike evidently does, too (“Whopper Hand,” “The Growing Brain,” “My Precious Nosehair,” “Whoops — The Most Disgusting Laugh Getter,” and a fart machine; action figures of Jesus, Einstein, and Freud). My little boy Joe has a china bank in the shape of a piece of Swiss cheese, labeled (what else?) “Swiss Bank,” which we bought from Mike. The jammed center aisle splits in two to run around the toy, game, doll, and novelty section in the back — this in a store no more than four man-sized paces wide. Board games you’ve never heard of (“Guesstures,” “Beyond Balderdash,” “Sexual Secrets”) jam against Revell models, new and old (Hummer, Jeep, ’64 Olds 442, ’56 Chevy Del Ray). My older son Bud and I used to buy caps and cap pistols from Mike, the kinds of things chain toy stores no longer carry. Dolls include Baby Ann and Her Care Set and Little Orphan Annie. There are Lincoln Logs from the old days in big barrels. There is a boomerang. And I may just go back to buy a Chinese Checker set with a steel board — just the indestructible thing for my little ruffians.
I eventually bought a pipe, as I have done periodically throughout the years. Mike has made a point of buying out the stocks of old briars from 30 years ago or more when the quality of briar burls was really good. Under the beaming gaze of a statue of young Theodore Roosevelt as a cowpuncher, I asked Mike to “Show me something good,” and he pulled out a Savinelli Titan, straight-grain, for $85.
That’s a very good price for a very good pipe, in case you didn’t know. I’m smoking it right now.
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