Gag shop may be closing, but laughs keep coming

March 18, 1991|By Doug Birch

Everybody's a comedian at the Recreation Novelty Co., the dusty Park Avenue gag shop that has peddled cheap laughs to generations of Baltimoreans.

"A guy came in to buy 14 rubber chickens from me last week," says mirth merchant Meyer Finkelstein. Why? "I don't know. I didn't ask him. I think they use 'em in Annapolis, at the legislature."

The 79-year-old businessman, known as "Mr. Meyer" to cut-ups and practical jokers citywide, sits hunched over the front counter by the cash register, smiling in his lopsided way and peering through thick horn-rimmed glasses.

What's the funniest thing in his narrow storefront, which is crammed with stacks of cardboard boxes, dusty shelves and jumbled piles of merchandise? Rubber snakes? Groucho glasses? Whoopie cushions? Hand buzzers? Stink bombs? The pistol with the "Bang!" flag? Invisible dog leashes?

"Everything!" insists Mr. Finkelstein. He climbs off his stool, rummages through a shelf and plucks out a slightly dog-eared piece of green Styrofoam with pink foam mounds stuck on it. "It's the 'Bachelor's Bathmat,' they call it. With falsies," he smiles.

Bernadette "Bernie" Lembach, who wears a screaming red "Support Our Troops" T-shirt, is still tickled pink after 20 years of working at Recreation. "We don't have to worry about Saddam Hussein going out and getting picked up for drunken driving," she jokes. "He gets bombed at home!"

A master sandbagger, "Bernie" innocently offers a visitor a can of Sprite which, to his relief, does not explode or shoot out a cloth snake. Then she offers a stick of gum, the last in a pack.

Black-mouth gum? the visitor wonders, but accepts anyway. As he pulls the stick out of the pack, a hidden mousetrap-style spring snaps, stinging his finger like a hornet. Ouch!

"Did you really think it was gum?" she asks with a gasping laugh.

Mary Finkelstein, 77, the white-haired wife of the proprietor, perches on a stool behind the counter, wearing a blue knit dress and an angelic smile.

"If we had a deck of cards, I'd give you a shock!" she says, her eyesflashing. A risque deck? She shakes her head. "It shocks you. It's got batteries," she says. "I like magic tricks. I like something funny."

But the humor emporium's days are numbered. Mr. Finkelstein says he is bankrupt.

He doesn't want to talk about the details. But he says it all started several years ago when a couple of big novelty importers died. They used to be generous with credit. Their heirs have not been so accommodating.

"They started to put a rope around my neck," he says.

Many of his regular patrons have also grown old and died. Their children have "forgotten" about the store.

So the Finkelsteins, who have run the business since about 1960, are planning to make this coming April Fool's Day their last on Park Avenue, closing their door for good sometime next month. Then they'll relax and travel, they say, visiting their two children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But on this day, Recreation Novelty's display window is still festooned with green and white St. Patrick's Day paper decorations. Painted on the glass is a scratched and faded clown with a crooked smile who holds a playing card, face forward, with the words "Joker's Wild."

Inside, Mr. Finkelstein presides. He wears dark pants and two XTC plaid, woolen shirts, the inside one blue and buttoned at the neck, the outside one brown and open to the middle of his keg-shaped chest.

"Two at a time! Two at a time!" he calls out, but not harshly, to four schoolboys who sashay in. Two of them, trying to look cool but obviously flustered, knock some crepe paper off a shelf while backing out the door. The other two approach the counter sheepishly and ask for stink bombs. When they leave, the other two come in and also buy olfactory munitions.

A student who looks to be about 14 years old comes in wearing a baggy black leather jacket, orange sweatshirt, knit cap, jeans and expensive basketball shoes. He asks for "Vampire Repellent," a handsomely-packaged aerosol spray of foul-smelling garlic water.

Asked what he planned to do with it, the kid says simply: "Spray it on people."

"Just remember, you didn't get that here," says Mr. Finkelstein, tapping the package. "You get in trouble, you didn't get that here."

When he received change for his $5 bill, the kid asked for a hand buzzer, then a box of stink bombs.

"You want to spend all your money," Mr. Finkelstein says. "You're going to have a stinking good time."

Mr. Finkelstein, the son of a Lithuanian vest-maker, was born and raised in a red brick row house on Exeter Street near Fayette Street in East Baltimore, then an Italian and Jewish neighborhood. He played street baseball, sold newspapers and studied hard enough to enter the elite City College high school. Life was pretty much "wonderful," recalls Mr. Finkelstein, who graduated from City in 1929.

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