What? Shoppe is a tiny retail emporium dedicated to pop culture at 740 Broadway. It opened a couple doors down, 32 years ago, long before Broadway was upscaled to “Antique Row.” The neighborhood then was home to old-time businesses such as Sears and Gunderson Jewelers, and a whole lot of empty retail space, according to owners Philip Whitt and Charlotte Emrys. The Pantages had not yet been renovated, the Theater District makeover was anything but – but rent was low and so What? opened its doors.
Yesterday, the preternaturally young-looking owners celebrated the shoppe’s 32nd birthday over Oreo ice cream bars. When we visited, a soundtrack playing the theme from Bewitched purled around merchandise crammed to the ceiling: items drawn from low-brow culture, high kitsch and advertising and movie memorabilia dating from the 1950’s-60’s and on. We’d say a hairsbreadth separates this duo from the stars of the reality show, Hoarders – but in the most pleasant way.
The eye-popping bazaar has earned a cult following: “Four or five generations of people coming in from high school,” each one latching onto a new cultural trend, says Whitt. What? started as a specialty retailer featuring teaching toys and giftware – things that appealed to Whitt’s own small kids at the time – but has graduated to being a purveyor of gifts for adults with fringe tastes. (Victorian steampunk and zombies are trends du jour. Pirates of the Caribbean – yes, pirates! – are so yesterday.)
From the original paintings (Emrys and Whitt are both fine artists) on the walls to the vintage movie posters hanging overhead, the goods at What? are thoughtfully curated. Whitt, a cinephile who ran the film program for Broadway Center of the Performing Arts, and was once manager of the Grand Cinema, describes the merchandise as, “Things I really care about. Cinema. Art.” But there’s so much more to see: funhouse masks, costumes, stockings and fruit-colored wigs. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) ceramic skulls from Mexico (also molds for making your own sugar skulls at home). Scads of tee shirts and postcards. Tiny, life-like, German-made models of humans and animals for dioramas. And a selection of art magazines and books.
We could barely resist the overblown movie posters for old foreign films we’d never seen, and never will. But our hands-down favorite was an American poster illustrated with a pale bombshell: “Blond, blue-eyed and built for bikinis. One-Way Wahine. Rhymes with bikini.” They just don’t write ad campaigns like they used to.
Emrys and Whitt are connoisseurs of kitsch who seem unconcerned by the folly of taste; they merely stand ready to catch the next pop trend, on their now-gentrified street. “The retro-cocktail-hotrod people grew up, moved on and got married,” observes Whitt. For a hit of slightly acidic nostalgia, come on down to What? Shoppe. 740 Broadway, 253.272.8697. http://www.whatshoppe.com