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The Man From Uncle ... Mame's 

A toy story comes true in the Castro

Wednesday, Dec 13 1995
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I worry that beanbag chairs will be antiques someday," Lily Tomlin once commented. Tomlin's dread day has arrived: Glittering gaudily at the corner of 15th and Market, a boutique called Uncle Mame's (2193 Market St., 626-1953) provides a loving home for misfit toys and all-but-forgotten fads. A perfectly preserved museum of the golden (pre-Pong) age of games, TV commercials, and disposable icons, this is the Smithsonian of kitsch, whose founding fathers are named Mattel, Kenner, Hasbro, Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and Ronco.

Where else are you gonna find the world's only bendable, posable Kiefer Sutherland action figure? Or inflatable vinyl Peter Max pillows. Paint-by-number "Last Suppers." Dollywood souvenir books. Mint-in-the-box Happy Meal toys. Oscar Mayer wiener-mobiles. Snowglobes. Anatomically augmented Barbies and Kens. Vintage Pez dispensers. Slinkys. A Wonder Woman pinata.

Somewhere in there, amid the floor-to-ceiling shelves of this present-day Aladdin's cave, sits your entire childhood. And it's just waiting for you to buy it back.

For many of us spoiled-rotten, late-boomer-bulge kids, toys are us -- we are what we played with. Most of us can still sing note for note the toy and game and cereal jingles of our childhood desires. (All together now: "Mystery Date, are you ready for your Mystery Date? Don't be late ...")

So a visit to Uncle Mame's might just be better than years of therapy at unearthing lost memories and primal desires. If you've had a hard time finding your inner child, just open up your inner toy box and watch it come running.

If not therapy, it's at least a good cheap date: There's a photo booth in the back of the store (four poses for $3), and Uncle Mame's is fun even when it's closed -- every night passers-by stand transfixed in front of the shop, stopped in their tracks by the 10 vintage TVs showing continuous episodes of Absolutely Fabulous or an exhaustive homemade six-hour history of Cher, from the days when she had her own nose, teeth, cheekbones, etc., to her uneasy Letterman reunion with Sonny.

"We've already had one couple who met out front watching the TVs, and they came and had their picture taken in the photo booth a week later because they wanted to commemorate it," says David Sinkler, aka Uncle Mame. San Francisco's newest funny uncle, Sinkler is a bigger-than-life kitsch queen and trivia buff who moved here last year from Cleveland with a dream. A silly dream, but a dream nonetheless.

"I remember waiting on him at Dottie's True Blue Cafe last year," says Robert Hampton, who now happily works the floor at Uncle Mame's. "I was pouring him a cup of coffee, and I asked him, 'Are you from here?' And he said, 'No, but I'm gonna be from here.' And he told me his dream was to move to San Francisco and open up this insane store."

If you want to know who the real man from "Uncle" really is, just visit the shop, look up to the rafters, and watch as Sinkler's entire life flashes before your eyes. Tacked up there are his dad's bowling shoes and license plate from Cuyahoga County, Ohio. His mom's vintage stockings from the '60s. His grandma's Brownie cameras. And his own "Rosebud": a 1952 Flexible Flyer sled.

A pack rat from a family of pack rats, the 44-year-old Sinkler was born for this task: While the rest of us were busy breaking and blowing up our toys, he was fishing them out of garbage cans, taking them home, and fixing them. Or squirreling toys away as investments.

"Someone recently asked me what I was doing with a mint-in-the-box Corgi metal Yellow Submarine with the Beatles in it," says the avuncular Sinkler. "And I said I bought it as an investment when I was in 10th grade, just so I'd have it and it'd be worth something someday. I was always putting things away. But if I had really known what was coming, darling, I would have bought 10 of them."

Uncle Mame's is the latest outpost of a five-store business cooperative that originated with Chicago's Uncle Fun and grew to include Cleveland's and Columbus' Big Fun, and Minneapolis' Sister Fun, each run and stocked independently. Other retro-minded relatives around the country include Little Rickie (in New York's East Village), Archie McPhee (Seattle), and Ruby Montana (Seattle).

"California is big into Barbies, so he has a big Barbie section out there," says Sinkler's friend Ted "Uncle Fun" Frankel, reached at his Chicago store. "We're a little more jokey and gaggy in Chicago. [Sinkler] was involved in the theater in New York, so he brings that theatrical thing to his store. He knows everything about movies and TV, that's why he's Uncle Mame. Even though everyone thought Auntie Mame was eccentric, she really knew how to live and have a good time."

Sinkler makes frequent trips to the Midwest to cull treasures from trash, snapping up pop-cult crap so he can turn around and sell our youth back to us.

"People tend to have space to hang on to things there," he says. "It's harder to find really good junk here. Before people come to the West Coast, they jettison their stuff, lighten their load."

Just imagine: Somewhere in the heartland are garages and warehouses packed with priceless troves of Fat Albert trading cards and Marla Maples exercise videos, Liberace matches, and Jimmy Durante charms.

"Most of our customers are from the generation where the '70s is nostalgic," Sinkler says. "We were thinking of changing the name of the store to 'I Used to Have One of Those!' because we hear that so often."

With the help of Lon Murphy of Design Realization, the firm that put together the Nature Company concept stores, and artist Michael Brown, Sinkler transformed the former Wild, Wild West Boots & Leather into the ultimate garage sale: Plaid picnic hampers overflow with rhinestone cat-eye glasses (your choice of pink or black); someone's summer-camp arts-and-crafts bottle-cap sculptures now hold Kryptonite pins ("they make your Superman defenseless") and cartoony sperm key rings (with blue eyes or pink eyes for boy or girl). A candy dish brims with Barbra Streisand fingernails (complete with press-on fingers).

Elvis, Marilyn, and Star Trek each have their own department. Get your Elvis cologne-and-cassette combo for $14.99 ("Even a queen can smell like a king"). And an entire wall is devoted to Barbie and friends, including controversial Earring Magic Ken with lavender leather vest and cockring (With Real Clip-On Earrings for You!) priced at $100. For substantially less, you could go home with a Xuxa doll, modeled on the lascivious queen of South American soft-core kiddie shows, or a truly scary Mommy-to-Be Doll, with a "snap-off belly" revealing a curled up plastic baby and a "snap-on plastic flat stomach" for after birth.

Of course, Uncle Mame's has vintage lunch boxes, but that's passŽ -- the kitschy-cool crowd has already moved on to cereal boxes and cereal box art. Sinkler gets $20 for a box of Quisp with cereal inside, $70 for the hard-to-find sugary C3POs.

And there's candy, of course, from old-fashioned penny candy like hose strips of paper with rainbow-colored dots and Spencer Gifts-style novelty gags like Virgin Again Pills to neo-candy: pizza and french fry gum, chocolate-cherry Dork bars, and Snot, a sticky green lemonade-flavored liquid that you squeeze out of the nostrils of a clear plastic nose.

Before they exit, visitors are encouraged to leave their name and address and "what you are searching for" on the Wish List by the door, a revealing catalog of people's most poignant and banal desires:

" 'Sea Monkeys.' "
"Shrinky Dinks."
"A Lucy Vitameatavegemin light-switch panel."
"A 90210 'Donna' doll."
"Felix the Cat."
And finally, "A life.

About The Author

Joe Brown

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