Odd-Makers

T he “Keep [city name] Weird” movement began in Austin, TX, to celebrate the city’s independent, one-of-a-kind businesses. From there it’s spread to cities and towns coast to coast, becoming a rallying cry for quirkiness more generally.

Meantime, despite a healthy chorus of lamentations every time a favored small business closes, a Google search for “Keep New Haven Weird” produces five results total, which might as well be zero.

Maybe New Haven’s just too weird to adopt another city’s slogan.

Maybe we’re all taking a cue from one of the city’s true originals, Rubber Match (101 Whalley Ave). A sign outside promises “hookahs / vaporizers / candles / pipes / ashtrays / rock & roll merchandise;” a sign inside promises “three floors of waterbeds.” To get to them, you’ll have to tear your eyes away from the first level’s floor-to-ceiling local and pop culture mementos. There’s a plaque, once owned by Toad’s Place founder Mike Spoerndle, honoring Cyndi Lauper’s platinum single “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” with an etched note from Lauper: “thanx, you couldn’t have done it without me.” There’s an autographed photo series featuring Penn & Teller, with shop owner George Zito in two of the shots. There’s a sign once used to promote a local Spin Doctors show, now resting at the foot of the stairs. Rubber Match has been around since the early 1970s, so it’s had plenty of time to collect things, including a mascot: a rubbery-limbed stick figure with a matchstick head.

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Matches and heads are in play at Botanica Chango (240 Grand Ave), a narrow Fair Haven storefront crammed between a bodega and a barber. The shop itself is crammed with large, detailed religious icons, mostly figures of Catholic saints (I think), but also indigenous figures from the Americas to Africa. In the window, a red-robed San Elias with salt-and-pepper beard raises his sword over a foe; a few feet away, a feather-capped chieftain stands proudly atop a pedestal, arms crossed around a spear. Inside, figures like (and unlike) the window’s line shelves around the room, between them a glass counter case with spiritual articles like incense. The woman behind the counter didn’t speak any English, only Spanish, but a guy on my side was able to translate a bit. I asked her what the purpose of the shop was, and he answered: “protection”—from ill-intentioned spirits, and people.

You’ll find very few of either at Never Ending Books (810 State St), where used books, magazines and records are free. The musty energy of its curving stacks is comforting and enlivening, especially if there’s a concert or band practice in the music room next door. But unlike Botanica Chango’s icons, this isn’t 24-hour protection; the hours are spotty, and you have to get a little lucky. Then again, there are a few 24-hour book and magazine shelves outside the front door, currently offering diverse titles like Francine du Plessix Gray’s Lovers and Tyrants, an “erotic, urgent and beautifully written novel” (source: the internet) that gets a not-too-shabby 3.7 on GoodReads, and Saving Manufacturing, a thin book put out by the Labor Research Review. Nearby is Robert Fulgum’s Uh-Oh, a self-help book the cover says is full of “observations from both sides of the refrigerator door.”

Strange bedfellows share shelf space at Middle Eastern-ish corner grocer Ayah-H Market (831 Orange St), too. Among a short alley of shelves in the back right corner, find sesame tahini paste next to Chips Ahoy! cookies; Lebanese custard-in-a-box next to Jif peanut butter; dry white burgoul (a.k.a. bulgar) next to Pop Secret. In the middle of the checker-tiled room are a couple of tables, just sort of there. You might catch an Arabic soap opera blaring from a small TV atop the drink fridge, opposite the front counter so the clerk can watch. Past the counter is the kitchen, where some of the city’s best falafel—fresh and crispy outside, warm and soft inside—gets fried up, then wrapped in tortilla, not pita, lightly coated with hummus, tahini and hot sauce if you like, stuffed with lettuce, tomato and a mild, savory pickle, julienned.

If it sounds to you like there’s a lot going on in there, brace yourself before entering the kaleidoscopic hippie culture enclave Group W Bench (1171 Chapel St). Around since 1968, it’s the neatest mess imaginable—thousands and thousands and thousands of rings, earrings, necklaces, figurines, models, toys, ornaments, pots, bottles, instruments, postcards, candles and textiles, everything positioned just so. Spiritual figures—Jesus, Buddha, Ganesh and probably others not so easily identified—appear here and there, and Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons, including “Bone Marley,” who holds a guitar inside his flowery coffin, get special emphasis. Picking out a four-foot span of two shelves and just going with them, I found detailed figurines of fairies, dragons, wizards and kings; classic cars and boats; horses and dinosaurs; and robots, plus mini-gum ball machines. After asking how many items there are in-store, one of the attendants answered, “Millions,” and in the moment it was plausible enough that I had to ask if she was kidding. She laughed and replied obliquely that there are even more items out of sight.

Far out, man.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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