The strangest store in Los Angeles was born of a brainstorming session between two Sagehen smart guys.
Just two years out of school, Mac Barnett ’04 was the executive director of 826LA, the Los Angeles chapter of a national nonprofit that runs tutoring centers fronted by quirkily-themed retail shops that help pay the rent. Put in charge of opening a new 826 center in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, Barnett needed a clever concept, and he knew just the man to call.
Jon Korn ’02 and Barnett had met while both were performing in Without a Box, Claremont’s beloved five-college improv comedy troupe. Kindred comedic spirits, the two shared an offbeat intellectual humor that Barnett sensed would be perfect for his new venture.
So he asked Korn, who was working as a programmer of independent film festivals, if he’d help toss around some ideas, just like in the good old days.
“The answer was immediately ‘yes,’” says Korn, who laughs almost as easily as Barnett does.
After throwing out a few wacky ideas, such as a detective store and a submarine supply outlet, the pair settled on a truly bizarre concept: a Time Travel Mart. The “mart” aspect was meant as an homage to L.A.’s strip mall culture. The time travel theme simply tickled their mutual funny bone.
This was in keeping with the 826 shopping schtick. Founded a decade ago by respected author Dave Eggers, the organization’s first tutoring center at 826 Valencia St. in San Francisco had added on a “pirate store” to meet the locale’s retail zoning requirements. The format stuck as 826 opened new centers, bringing a spy store to Chicago and a superhero supply shop to Brooklyn, to name a few.
For the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, Barnett and Korn decided that, rather than sell genuine artifacts from other eras (an expensive and uninspiring undertaking), they would create their own humorous and cheaply produced versions of historical and futuristic relics to fill the store’s shelves.
A plastic bottle of water was repackaged as “Anti-Robot Fluid.” A single white glove was boxed and labeled a “Duel Starter Kit.” Dog food became “Caveman Candy.” A ball of steel wool? “Robot Toupee.”
For the lawyer who has everything, Barnett and Korn decided to sell “dead languages,” such as Latin, in amber medical bottles. A favorite Father’s Day gift is an “ism” in a bottle—there’s Reaganism, Socialism, Optimism (bottled in 1967), Romanticism and, of course, Antidisestablishmentarianism.
With the help of the highly-sought-out designer Stefan G. Bucher, these simple oddities became lovely, meticulously crafted objects that appeal to aesthetes, hipsters and history buffs alike. Korn says the products’ quirks did present some vexing questions, such as: What should a bottle of elixir of eternal life cost? (Answer: $8.)
Barnett and Korn also wrote lengthy and often ludicrous copy for each item that went far beyond the necessary product information. They seized every bit of knowledge gleaned from fulfilling their Pomona PAC requirements and respective majors— Korn’s was history and Barnett’s was English with a concentration in Viking poetry—to create packaging rich with historical and literary inside jokes.
Take “Van Warwijck’s Dodo Chow,” which is really just a bag of birdseed.
“It’s a Dutch brand of dodo feed,” explains Barnett, who now works as an author of children’s books. “In the list of ingredients, ‘dodo poison’ is in there. That’s the only reference to the fact that the Dutch killed the dodos. You would have to both know that the Dutch exterminated the dodos and read the entire 50-name ingredient list to get this one joke. It’s about rewarding that one person.”
They’re esoteric, but the jokes work. “Every day people come in, they walk around the store, they pick stuff up, they read it and then they laugh,” says Shannon Losorelli, a manager at the store. “And they always say, ‘Whoever wrote this is brilliant.’”
Barnett credits their training in Without a Box for fueling their freewheeling imaginations. “A big part of improv is saying ‘yes,’” he explains. “That whole theory is drilled into you. If somebody puts out an idea, you agree with it and build on it. That’s the way we worked on this.”
In the end, the duo’s unorthodox approach to retail development worked. Three years after opening on Sunset Boulevard, smack in the heart of one of L.A.’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods, the Echo Park Time Travel Mart is a hit. The store has sold out of almost every product at least once, and each month a new item hits the shelves.
The mart’s quirky, ’70s-style aesthetic has made it an unlikely local landmark. Its burnt orange signage and brightly lit interior bring a kind of strip mall chic to an otherwise ordinary block. It’s not uncommon to see passersby stop in their tracks as they gaze up at the store and its dizzying slogan: “Wherever you are, we’re already then.”
Most importantly, the mart yields enough revenue to pay the rent, which keeps the backroom tutoring center running. As many as a hundred kids show up every day after school, and a roster of thousands of volunteers rotate in and out of the center, helping students complete their homework and school projects, write stories, and even publish books.
“The most fun I’ve ever had is going to the publishing parties,” says Korn. “Thirteen-year-olds do a book signing, their parents come, everyone eats cake.”
Thanks in part to the connections of 826 founder Dave Eggers, the Echo Park tutoring center has scored major support from celebrities including comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson and writer-director J. J. Abrams, whose production crew designed the caveman-meets-robot display in the storefront window.
But the Time Travel Mart’s customer base remains as diverse as the neighborhood itself. The other day, a priest who works at the church down the street stopped in and bought “Elixir of Eternal Life.” When Losorelli, the store’s manager, told Korn about the sale, he jokingly chided her: “You should have tried to upsell him on Latin.”