Thursday, April 01, 1999

April Fools' paradise at Brown Novelty

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Wayne stands in the doorway, right next to Bugs Bunny. Hanging on the wall above the life-sized cardboard Duke's 10-gallon hat is a plastic Bengals helmet. It is an air freshener. No disrespect intended, but they did sort of stink up the place this year.

        In the display window, playing to the nearly empty West Fourth Street, are jolly remnants of St. Patrick's and Valentine's days. This is Brown Novelty Co., 312 W. Fourth St., established in 1947.

        “My son does the windows,” the owner says. “He has been busy with sports and hasn't had a chance to change them. I've gotta get on him.” Gordon Brown laughs. I don't believe for a minute that he will “get on” his son.

        Instead, maybe he will put a fake rubber snake in his bed. Maybe he'll put some plastic dog poop in his sock drawer. Perhaps a whoopie cushion on the boy's chair at the dinner table. After all these years, Gordon Brown is still delighted with the merchandise.

        So am I.

Hearing voices
        There. I admit it. I love a good practical joke. A good practical joke, of course, is one that I play on someone else.

        My all-time favorite apparatus is the Fabulous Talking Toilet Seat, which I bought from Brown's in 1990. It still works just fine, except I've used it on everybody I know, therefore losing the element of surprise. Which is crucial.

        The store's inventory is a cornucopia of April Fools' foolishness — rubber chickens, fake noses, stink bombs, disappearing ink. So, is April 1 a big day? “Not really,” Gordon says. “Most of our business comes from churches and schools and senior centers.”

        Yipe. Pews tricked out with whoopie cushions? Recently potty-trained preschoolers traumatized by toilet seats that speak? Dribble glasses for the elderly?

        I am relieved to be told that he means that he stocks the fish ponds for school carnivals and provides the prizes for church festivals and senior centers' fund-raisers.

        His back room is filled with gas. Helium. He'll be inflating the balloons for Opening Day. When Procter & Gamble introduced its Tartar Control Crest, Gordon was responsible for making sure that there were 9,000 balloons ready for release.

        He gives friendly rates to Disabled American Veterans who come in for flag pins. He supplies hats for chichi parties. He will drop everything to ring up Groucho Marx glasses and nose — 65 cents.

        His customers know him. And he knows them. They are city dwellers and suburban people who bravely drive their cars into town, then try to find a place to store them. “I've paid a parking ticket or two for customers,” Gordon says. “It's kind of an investment. I don't want to lose them.”

Vanishing character
        And we, Gordon, don't want to lose you. We have lost too many shopkeepers already — Bob Elkus of the late Dino's and the Batsakeses, who will be vacating their hat emporium.

        Around the corner on Central, the city is gobbling up parking spaces next to Campanello's Restaurant faster than Bruce Campanello's customers can gobble up minestrone. But he keeps the doors open.

        For now.

        I hope our city officials in their zeal for TJ Maxx and their reverence for Nordstrom will spend some energy to try to keep Gordon Brown and his neighbors as part of the city landscape. They are what keep us from looking just like everybody else. They are our character. And our characters.

        Anyway, Happy April Fools' Day, Gordon.

        And many more.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine. Her book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at