Bazaar of the bizarre

At a wacky store in Northeast Portland, customers learn to play again

Keith Hetrick wants to retire on phony bloody thumbs and fake poop. But getting people to loosen up is what really stirs his passions.

So for three years he's been attempting to do both from behind the counter of Bazaar of the Bizarre, a little shop of largely harmless horrors at 5667 N.E. Glisan St. He sits surrounded by wind-up toys and squishy eyeballs, but for Hetrick the offbeat offerings are anything but trivial.

'This place is a necessity,' said Hetrick, 52. 'We have put so many Victorian stigmas on ourselves that we haven't allowed ourselves to be wacky. That's the problem with the people that won't come in here Ñ they're not having fun with their lives. The people that do come in here smile from the second they walk in.'

Hetrick's wife and partner, Lynne, brings her own energy to the project. Wearing a brightly colored Heckle and Jeckle shirt, her hair in a waist-length braid, she bustles about the store rearranging inventory.

On one wall are the novelty shop classics: ant farms, fuzzy dice, Magic 8 Balls and plastic vomit. But it gets a little weirder: lunchboxes adorned with images of Hindu deities, anatomically accurate human hearts that squirt water and 25-cent bags of glow-in-the-dark sticky maggots.

'People love the gross stuff,' said Hetrick, showing off a personal favorite. It's a fleshy, pink human nose dangling from a key ring. When squeezed, uncomfortably realistic snot bulges from the nostrils. 'This thing here is our best seller,' he said, the glee unmistakable in his soft voice. 'We sell hundreds of these.'

'Anything and everything that comes out of here is the biggest hit of the party,' Hetrick said.

The store does have a more sober side. Hetrick said doctors and art students in search of medical-quality skeletons and body parts make up a portion of his trade. 'I sell lots of spines, vertebras, stuff like that,' he said. 'I get a lot of really serious art students that come in and use my bones. They'll come in for a finger, a femur, whatever they want.'

The store carries books and posters produced by the Anatomical Chart Co., an Illinois-based publisher and maker of informational products.

'We wanted to be more educational,' Hetrick said. 'Robots, planets, space stuff.'

There are limits to how far Hetrick will go for a laugh. 'We don't have any guns in here. We don't have any video games,' said Hetrick, an amiable, barrel-chested man with silver hair.

Hetrick doesn't aim to be sacrilegious, but the irreverence does abound. 'That's why the Jesus figure is next to the Happy Monk, which is next to the Devil Girl. We've got the Sparking Nunzilla, the Punching Rabbi, the Punching Amish,' he said. 'It's not for everyone, but it can be. You have to break down your barriers. It opens up vistas that you don't have at Toys 'R' Us.'

Teaching ways to play

'We've sterilized all our toys for our children,' Hetrick said. 'The types of toys that come out now don't leave anything to the imagination. Kids don't play games anymore.'

Hetrick grew up in Southeast Portland, his youth accompanied by the low-budget horror and science fiction films of the late '50s and early '60s and the products they spawned.

'Robbie. Robbie the Robot. Forbidden Planet. 1956,' said Hetrick, as if reciting a mantra. From a high shelf he pulls down a reproduction of Machine Man, a futuristic robot toy popular at the height of the atomic age. He said an original fetched $74,000 in a 1977 Sotheby's auction.

'We're trying to teach people how to play with toys again,' Hetrick said.

The Hetricks landed in their current location in the spring of 1999. Despite the proximity to Interstate 84, Providence Hospital, a bus stop and the MAX line, they know the spot isn't ideal. Their wares would seem a natural fit along the boulevards of the younger, more iconoclastic neighborhoods of inner Southeast.

'Hawthorne's the place to be,' Hetrick said. 'But I don't want to move until we're well enough established around the city. It's a bad trait to move your business.

'We've definitely grown. We did notice a considerable jump last year,' Hetrick said. Sales in December Ñ at the height of the store's peak Halloween-to-Christmas season Ñ increased from $800 in 1999 to $7,000 last year, he said.

'It's a slow, gradual climb. It took my neighbor five years to get her deli going,' he said. 'It's 'I think I can, I think I can' at this point.'

'We have 400 square feet. I think we could fill 1,000,' Hetrick said. 'I don't have enough room to do what I want. I would have sandboxes, swing sets, a playground. I would have kids in here 24 hours a day.'

A landscaper for 30 years, Hetrick also participated in local theater. He was involved in the Ladybug Theater, an improvisational group that entertains children at the Oregon Zoo. He was a founder of the now-defunct Storefront Theater and played in a bluegrass-oriented band called the Strumlords.

'I always wanted to show off,' Hetrick said. 'This is my theater here. I still see the wonder.'