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Chasing treasure in Pittsburgh's second-hand stores

Frank Oreto
Frank Oreto
Second-hand stores offer a chance to step away from the predictable world of chain stores and find some truly unique stuff,  from the forgotten annals of pop culture to hand-made items that are truly one of a kind. We stepped into four of the area’s best --only to have one close before this was published--and asked to see the five most interesting or unusual items in stock.
 
Who New Mod and Retro Décor, 5156 Butler St., Lawrenceville, 412-781-0588
 
Jeff Gordon and Roger Levine opened Who New? Mod and Retro Décor in 2003, when Lawrenceville was gaining a footing as an enclave for interior design businesses. The two had long collected mid-century furnishings as a hobby. Gordon, who was previously employed as a clown by the Ringing Brothers and Barnum Bailey circus, says it takes a generation or two for an item to gain antique appeal, so most of his customers are a good deal younger than their purchases. Though we focused on the more humorous or eye-grabbing items, Who Knew also had a lot of much classier antique furniture.
 
1. Heinz Ketchup radio and telephone: These products, manufactured in 1980, are the exact shape and size of the company’s ketchup bottles, and all the buttons and dials needed to make them actually function are hidden on the bottoms, so you have to walk up really close before realizing they aren‘t the real things. Though they came in boxes featuring bar codes, indicating they were sold at retailers, Gordon says most were probably given away to Heinz employees.
 
2. Giant hamburger wall hanging: Gordon bought this three-by-four-foot wall hanging, made from lithograph on metal, from a guy who does mostly corporate-sponsored specialty events and used it to recreate ’50s malt joints for theme parties. The seller said he got it from a defunct diner on Route 30, out around Blairsville, but Gordon says it looks too new and pristine to be authentically vintage.
 
3. Fully intact 1958 Predicta TV: Who Knew has a rare nearly mint-condition model of this iconic TV set but they aren‘t selling it. Gordon says they do rent it to film and theater productions looking to put on a neurotically accurate late ’50s or early ’60s period piece. If they did put a price on it, similarly pristine models have gone for $900 to $1,100. “Hipsters like to take all the guts out and hook their laptops into it, so it shows what’s on their computer screen,” says Gordon. “They like to steam-punk it.” (Hey, we didn’t know that was a verb!)
 
4. Beverly Hillbillies Card Game: This tie-in to the ’60s sitcom seems to be nothing more than a variation of poker, with playing cards featuring images of Jed, Elly May and the gang, making it so simple even Jethro could play!
 
5. Virgin Mary nightlight: Gordon says he has an interest in Christian kitsch but is quick to say, “I’m laughing at the market for such stuff, not at the religion.” (The store also has a Last Supper wall clock.) This five-inch Virgin Mary nightlight seems perfect to guide you through the valley of darkness that is the path from the bedroom to the bathroom.
 

Jerry’s Records, 2136 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-421-4533, www.jerrysrecords.com.
 
Jerry Weber has accumulated over 2.5 million pieces of vinyl since opening the first Jerry’s Records in Oakland in 1976. (The store moved to Squirrel Hill in 1993.) His collecting proclivities are enough to get Weber featured on A&E’s “Hoarders,” but an expert concluded he was not mentally ill, just a highly enterprising second-hand retailer. Weber’s collection goes well beyond rock and pop and extends to such specialty genres as opera, bluegrass, Zydeco, children’s music and folk songs from just about every country on the map.
 
1. James Dean’s debut album: Have you ever heard that James Dean was also a recording artist? Well, you shouldn’t have, because he wasn’t. Nonetheless in 1975, Warner Brothers commissioned some people to set dialogue from the three films Dean completed before his death at the age of 24 to music and released it under his name. Given his looks and rock-star charisma, Dean would have been irresistible to any record company, whether or not he had any singing talent. This one-off record allowed the shortly-lived star to have the ill-conceived, embarrassing side career he never got to have!
 
2. Marion Lush Sings More Polka: Jerry’s is the only record shop in Pittsburgh (and maybe anywhere) with a well-stocked polka section. We picked this album from hall-of-famer Marion Lush (why, yes, there is a Polka Hall of Fame) because of the image of Mickey Mouse dancing with Casper the Friendly Ghost at Marion’s feet, a reference to the album’s “Mickey Mouse Polka.” No word if any of this was Disney-endorsed. Today, there is no way Mickey would ever do the two-step with a character from another cartoon conglomerate given Disney’s fierce efforts towards copyright protection and brand purity.
 
3. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: Here is another entry from the category of records attributed to people who didn’t really make records. On this disc, Mickey Spillane narrates a story starring his famous detective Mike Hammer. The popularity of audio of stories being read aloud has varied widely with technology, coming in with radio, going out with television and coming back with pod casts and audible.com. Such stuff was relatively rare on record because of the bulkiness and limited storage capacity of vinyl.
 
4. “Joseph” McIntire doll: The New Kids on the Block were well marketed during their heyday. This doll, a rare one still in its original packaging, comes from a brief period during which Joey McIntire wanted to be known as “Joseph.” Yeah, because then we would take them all seriously.
 
5. Ted Nugent handbag: Has the Nuge entered the women’s accessories market? From his rock and roll career, the Motor City Madman has branched out into hunting videos, reality TV, books of political commentary and his own brand of beef jerky (all of which has been overshadowed recently by his Secret Service-investigated threats against President Obama). This bag is not official Nugent merchandize, however. It’s the work of an artisan who makes hand bags out of record covers.
 
ElJay’s Used Books, 3233 West Liberty Ave., Dormont. 412-344-7444
 
ElJay’s existed on the South Side for 15 years, allowing browsers to stop in for some odd books and even odder overhead music. Horror, sci-fi and beatnik books are all specialties, and the place also trades in rare and antique volumes. Last year, seeking cheaper rent, owner Frank Oreto, uprooted the shop to Dormont.
 
1. Global Warming: A Pop Up Book of Our Endangered Planet: Some interesting pop-ups have come through ElJay’s over the years, including a pop-up Kamma Sutra. The weirdest currently in stock is this one, part of a series of science pop-ups published by Simon and Shuster in the early ’90s. Most scandalously, we could find no label on this book marking it as having been printed on recycled paper.
 
2. Cameras of the People’s Republic of China: In this title, author Douglas St. Dennis offers exactly what the title promises: page after black-and-white page of pictures and descriptions of the various cameras the communist country had produced up until the book’s publication date of 1989. How interesting is that? Oreto says that after perusing the title, the only difference between Chinese cameras and Western ones he has been able to deduce is that the former “have Chinese writing on them.”
 
3. Gags to Riches: Joey Adams was a Borscht Belt comedian who played nightclubs and vaudeville venues in the pre-television era of stand-up comedy. This copy of his autobiography wouldn’t be particularly interesting if not for the signatures within. Next to Adams’ are those of Mark Plant, Tony Canzoneri and Herman Middleman. Who are these people? Plant was also a comedian, Canzoneri was a hall-of-fame boxer, and Middleman was a big band leader who was a constant presence in Pittsburgh clubs until his death in 1975. “I figure whoever brought it to a show had every famous person in the room sign it,” says Oreto. Sometimes books tell a story in more ways than one.
 
4. Physogs board game: Eljay’s doesn’t usually buy board games but as a collector of curiosities, Oreto couldn’t resists this copy of Physogs, a game based around the discredited “science” of physiognomy, which ascribed personality characteristics to people based on their facial features. The game allows players to assemble faces that fit into certain physiognomical types through little paper eyes, noses and mouths. Oreto did some research and the only other copy of the game he could find is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, which estimates that it was probably manufactured in the 1920s or ’30s in Great Britain.
 
5. Antique Polish prayer book: We don’t know the title of this book, but the text itself is not the point. This Polish prayer book from the late 19th century is a masterwork of bookbinding craftsmanship. It has held up in mint condition thanks to its thick artisan binding. Fancy etchings adorn the cover, and the pages, when the book is closed, form a smooth, flat surface (not a arch shape), a sure sign of craftsmanship in the era. Also, a screwdriver-like tool was used to implant the tiny stars on that surface and a little lever thing can keep the book closed. The Biblical illustrations inside are pristine and the text still perfectly readable (if you can read Polish). They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
 
Groovy Pop Culture Emporium, 1304 East Carson St., South Side. 412-381-8010
 
So yes, we were going to feature this place but it's no longer open. The owner has decided to move on but she says someone bought much of the inventory with plans to open a store on Main St. in Munhall.
 
Captions: Frank Oreto with the Physogs game at Eljays; global warming pop-up; Eljays window; Jerry's Records; Virgin Mary night light at Who New?

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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