August 10, 2006


A couple of years ago my wife told me that she'd discovered a sign about a half hour from our house which she suspected I would be interested in. It was apparently advertising a joke and magic shop and it had a skeleton on it. Yes, I was interested.

On the next available Saturday a magic-enthusiast friend and I set out to visit this unusual discovery. In this modern age you're lucky to find a gag retailer in even the most tourist populated areas. However, my wife's directions were leading us further and further from civilization. As we traveled we theorized that the sign was probably a remnant from a place that had closed down ages ago, or maybe an auction find that someone was proudly displaying. Soon I came to a stop in the middle of the country road... there it was.

The sign demanded to be read aloud.. "Granny Jo Anne's Magic and Joke Shop!?" (I later learned that it's pronounced Granny Jo Annie's, as in Little Orphan...) It was greater than I had ever imagined. It was impressively large and the grim reaper was nicely and stylishly illustrated. I noted the timeless quality of the monument. Granny Jo was clearly doing this thing right, and I found myself suddenly excited. The sign was located on the grounds of a sprawling rural "flea market" that consisted of several buildings resembling the chicken houses that are so prevalent in this area. The near-empty, dirt parking lot made us question its operational status, but the wide-open doors gave us hope.

The interior was jammed with second and third hand products and there sat a man watching television behind a counter which seemed to be a designated money-exchanging area. We silently deduced that the place was indeed "in business" but I saw no pranks or grim reapers or grannys (well, maybe a couple, but they weren't Jo Anne). The offering of goods were a bit rougher than the typical flea market fare, and it was a place where most patrons enjoyed their freedom to smoke while they shopped. Bucking the typical booth system, everything in the room looked to be the property of the TV watcher. But then we saw an entrance to another area.

We walked through to find a dimly lit mall-like layout. There was a long, cement walkway with "stores" on both sides that were divided by wooden planks and chicken wire. Some were padlocked, some were dark, and some were floor-to-ceiling with knick-knacks, but few were manned. Most of the folks shuffling around the hall seemed to be shopkeepers visiting with one another.

There on the right..Bingo!..Granny Jo Anne's (This time the words were on a less interesting sign.. a banner of dot matrix printer paper). Thankfully the lights were on. It only took my friend and I to make the 9' x 9' "show room" feel crowded and the piles of packages on the floor didn't help. Granny must have been conducting business elsewhere because the heavily cushioned stool behind the display case was empty. There was a surprisingly wide selection of products. Most were newish, some were homemade and all were haphazardly displayed. My eyes instantly started mining through the clutter. I was quickly crestfallen as I realized the bulk of their selection was produced by that all-too-prevalent pollutant of the joke biz... Loftus.

Loftus is a horrific brand of novelties that spread through the country like a plague during the 1990s. They achieved widespread distribution by undercutting established joke dealers with chintzy knock-offs of all the classic gags. They are the arch nemesis of industry originators like S.S. Adams and even Franco American Novelty.

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It's likely that your eyes have already been violated by their grotesque packaging. They adhere to a visual landscape of metallic fonts and gaudy gradients inhabited by rosy-cheeked, over-sexualized, anime-influenced characters. In harsh contrast to the classic jolly joker in a plaid suit, these vector-illustrated drones seem to treat pranks and magic as nothing more than foreplay.

I continued to scan the room for diamonds in the rough when the enormous clerk pushed his way to his perch behind the counter. He asked us if we wanted any free stickers bearing anti-drug slogans.. for the children in our lives. We politely accepted them. After the initial awkward moments we realized that this prank pusher was a whole lot of fun and wanted nothing more than to talk shop and demonstrate magic tricks. We gabbed about everything from the local magic scene to the store's fictitious namesake. My friend and I took turns shopping and speaking. We both understood that this man, who was "in it for the love," deserved some patronage on this dismal Saturday morning. I grabbed an Adams' Production Box trick and a handful of others before I unburied a pretty cool find...

It was old and the box was terrific (I love the slogan "Entertaining but Harmless") although the items inside seemed to be a Granny Jo Anne's custom mix of trinkets. Some fun stuff (vintage even), but not an authentic assortment.

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Although judging from the mismatched typfaces in this ad that I found, the box may have been designed to hold any products in need of liquidation...

Our lengthy conversation with the clerk was actually interrupted several times by children hitting him up for anti-drug stickers. He told us that he used to give out free balloons but they just caused too many problems.
Another welcome diversion occurred when the Latino blanket salesman from next door (a regular customer) stopped by in search of the perfect prank to play on his visiting mother-in- law. The clerk rattled off a list of suggested joke items but the man said he had already pulled every last one of them. The customer eventually discovered the Gelling Joke, a powder that instantly turns liquid into gel (I can vouch for its effectiveness). His eyes lit up. He gleefully paid and exited with a wide grin as he muttered in his thick accent "Oh, yes.. this is good. This is very, very good."

I topped off my shopping bag with a seven inch, pinkish, glow-in-the-dark, rubber skeleton...

I was amused when the clerk assured me that if I unveiled it in a darkened room during a faux seance, it could easily pass as a life-size specter standing in the doorway. This has not proven successful. I blame stupid old depth perception.

My friend and I walked out of the primitive mall quite satisfied and knowing that we had a new story to tell. I never did return to Granny Jo Anne's. There's just no way that another visit could ever top my first.


Anonymous said...

That trip sounds like the opposite of the carnival coming to town but with a similar experience... unique treasures intermingled with disappointments but nearly always unforgettable.

Glad to know you stuck around and talked to the guy. I've been in similar situations where I've tried to flee when the clerk is absent after I've entered a disappointing establishment that failed on its storefront promise (whew!). Sometimes the clerk or owner is ten times more interesting than the wares for sale so sticking around is often worthwhile.

No pics of the showroom or owner?

Brian O.

Ronn Roxx said...

Great story! And I agree with "Anonymous" about entering a store/shop that, from the outside, looks great, but upon entering you emediatly realize there is nothing but crap and you just want to turn around and leave, but somehow feel obligated to at least look at their junk before making your getaway.

Kirk D. said...

Brian- Yeah once the owner showed up we knew we weren't getting out of there any time soon, but thankfully he was indeed entertaining. And I wouldn't have found the cool box if he hadn't blabbed so much. I wish I could remember more of his stories because they were all a little bit "off" which made them interesting.

I didn't think to bring the camera in the building, but wished that I had. It's almost worth another visit to write a follow up, although I'd be surprised if it's still there.

Yes shopping for social reasons is a funny and interesting pehnomenon, and salespeople have depended on it for years. Funny that we actually buy stuff to impress sales clerks that we don't know. (oh, that just reminded me of a funny story I should blog about) And in the Jo Anne's case we bought stuff out of pity.

letseatpaste said...

I can't believe you fell for the old "latino blanket booth guy pranking his mother-in-law" routine... All these little shops do that, that's how they stay in business, by suckering howdy doody rubes like you. I bet they rake in dozens of dollars annually with that Gelling Joke scam.

Todd Franklin said...

It’s always exciting to visit one of these off the wall tourist type of traps. Sometimes you really do get trapped talking to the lonely clerk behind the counter. At least they had a neat sign and you snagged a sharp looking box. Of course everyone needs one of those rubber glow-in-the-dark skeletons. I know I have one or two packed away somewhere. Maybe they’re in my closet!

Kirk D. said...

Paste- NOW you tell me. I just invested my life savings in Gelling Joke International.

Todd- Everyone does indeed need a rubber skeleton. And I've got plans for my rubber skeleton collection. stay tuned.