NYC Department of Finance documents show that lots on the west side of Eighth Avenue (# 693 - 699) and lots on the south side of West 44th (# 300 - 320) have been combined into a single development plot ...
No Joke: Shopkeeper Must Pack Up His Bag of Tricks
By JOE BRESCIA
July 22, 2007
Arnold Martin has rats in his store. You can see them crawling around his window, peeping out of food cartons.
The revolting scene causes passers-by to reach for their cellphones. But they are not alerting the Board of Health — instead, they are laughing to friends about the storefront parody of the rodent infestation at a Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell that received widespread press coverage in February.
Mr. Martin is the owner of the Funny Store, a small Times Square shop that merges Harry Houdini’s basement with Rip Taylor’s garage. The place is filled with props, gag gifts, magic tricks and games.
The business, now at 44th Street and Eighth Avenue, has been part of the Times Square scene since 1957, changing owners and locations several times but always sticking to the same few blocks and staying ahead of rising rents, new zoning laws and new construction.
Now, it will have to move again. Mr. Martin’s landlord is selling the building, at 693 Eighth Avenue, to a developer, and he has to vacate the store by the end of the month to make way for condominiums. And retail rents in Times Square are now so high that he cannot afford to stay.
[Note: The complete adress of the building is 693 - 697 Eighth Avenue]
“Unfortunately, the days of the independent store owner are disappearing,” he said. “If you’re not a chain like Disney, McDonald’s or the Gap, then landlords won’t even talk to you.”
Mr. Martin has worked at the store, originally at 1481 Broadway, since 1974, and bought the business 13 years ago. Through the years, the Funny Store has become must-stop shopping for fans of rubber rats, mice, snakes and chickens; fake excrement of all shapes and sizes; and trick playing cards and whoopee cushions.
And then there’s Mr. Martin’s sideshow. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Martin sat behind an elevated counter at the back of the store, pulling out props and tricks like a wizard of odd. Mr. Martin, 46 years old and 6 feet 3 inches tall, bears a perpetual Joker-like smile.
A customer, a man in a business suit, showed him a picture of his children. “They’re beautiful,” said Mr. Martin, who is single and lives in Manhattan.
He pulled out a picture from under the counter. “Here’s my pride and joy,” Mr. Martin said. The photo showed a box of Pride, the laundry detergent, and a container of Joy, the liquid soap.
Mr. Martin got into the business because “I enjoy seeing people laugh.” And it supports his many vices, “like eating and paying rent.” He’s been doing a lot of both lately.
“We’re always busy,” he said. “But I’ve seen panties dropping off recently. But I’m happy to say brassieres are still holding up.” (He gave up trying to become a stand-up comedian “after my jokes closed down a few nightclubs.”)
According to Mr. Martin, the most popular item, hands down (or is it feet down?), has been the fake dog excrement.
“It’s imported from Spain,” he said. “So real it even fools the dog.” Other top sellers include hand buzzers, whoopee cushions and rubber chickens.
The Funny Store has made many of the rich and famous giggle and shriek through the years. Customers have included Pat Cooper, David Copperfield, Gilbert Gottfried, David Letterman, Regis Philbin and countless cast and crew members from musicals like “The Producers” and “Spamalot.”
According to Mr. Martin, Henry Hodges, the child star of “Mary Poppins,” frequently pops in and leaves with a bag full of pranks and tricks.
Joe Franklin, the perpetual talk show host, has been a regular at the store’s various locations for 50 years.
“I love the place,” Mr. Franklin said in a telephone interview. “I enjoy all the props.
“And so did Ronald Reagan. He was a guest on my show five times before he became president. I knew that he liked jelly beans. So I bought big bottles that were filled with jelly beans but when you opened them, a big snake would pop out. Ronnie laughed so loud you could hear him all over the building.”
One prop no longer in stock is “the magic curtain” for grown-ups, which hung on the left wall. It attracted a businessman crowd, always in a rush, with serious faces. Pull back the curtain and be entertained with a much different selection of props.
The Funny Store had an agreement with the Playpen, a shop selling sexually explicit materials next door that provided an entrance through the magic shop. The arrangement was drawn up after a 1995 antipornography law limited the amount and display of such materials sold in parts of the city to 40 percent of a store’s inventory or floor space.
That agreement ended last year, and now a wall has replaced the curtain.
“Just about every day someone comes in, looking for that curtain, trying to avoid embarrassment,” Mr. Martin said. “But I suggest that they buy one of our fake beards and a pair of sunglasses so no one would recognize them going into the adult shop.”
Mr. Martin hopes it’s not the final curtain for the Funny Store. He noted that the owners of a thriving pizzeria across the street moved to Hazlet, N.J., after their landlord raised the rent 400 percent.
Mr. Martin pondered moving to the Garden State. “What would I sell for a laugh?”
He paused. “Maybe air fresheners.”
Copyright 2007The New York Times Company