In the 1980s, my favorite part of Los Angeles was Melrose Avenue, between Fairfax and La Brea. The stores were like mini pop culture museums: Wacko sold dime-store curiosities and terrific art books, La Luz de Jesus gallery was one of the first lowbrow art galleries, The Last Wound Up sold wind-up toys, Wanna Buy A Watch had cool old wristwatches, Golden Apple Comics was in its prime, Maya had cool Asian jewelry, Flip and Aardvark were crowded with racks of vintage clothes.
On Saturday's and Sundays, Melrose was thronged with pedestrians, and it was great fun to meet and greet people. Melrose was a rare public social scene for Los Angeles.
One of my favorite stores was Off The Wall, which sold amazing commercial display items. The Burgie Beer UFO in front of the store was a welcoming sight, and I thought of the little guy inside the flying saucer as the mascot of Melrose.
Like all cool scenes, Melrose Avenue eventually started to suck. As crass stores selling junky clothes and chain outlets started moving in, the orginal stores like Wacko, Soap Plant, and La Luz de Jesus moved out. By the early 1990s, Melrose was nearly unrecognizable. I stopped going. There's never been a place in LA as good as Melrose Avenue.
Over the years, I occasionally wondered what had happened to the Burgie UFO. I figured it was sitting in the living room of some middle-aged LA celebrity. But I was wrong. I stumbled upon it last week in the town of Takayama, Japan (population 94,000).
I almost missed it. My family and I were walking back to our ryokan after getting caught in a torrential downpour while hiking in the hills. We were all soaking wet, and we were tired and hungry for dinner. I saw an illuminated Reddy Kilowatt mascot in a storefront window across the street and snapped a photo. Carla said the place looked interesting, but I told her it was probably just a light bulb store. She said we should at least peek in the window.
Carla was right. It was a pop art store. It was dark inside. We peered through the glass and saw lots of movie robots, vinyl figurines, vintage toys, and framed artworks. It was kind of like a mini Melrose. We were leaving the following morning for Kyoto and I was sad that I wasn't going to be able to check it out.
I took a couple of photos through the window.
We were about to leave, but I tried the door and was surprised to discover it was unlocked. A young man popped out of another room and introduced himself as Tatsuhiko Enomoto ("Eno"), the manager of Tomenosuke Syoten. He explained that it was an art store / gallery started by a Japanese writer and collector named Shinji Nakako. He was very friendly and spoke English, so we had a nice talk about the gallery and he invited me to take photos.
In the back, I saw a Burgie UFO. "That looks just like the one I used to see on Melrose in Los Angeles!" I said. Eno said, "The owner got it from a place called Off The Wall." I was stunned to see it 6,000 miles from Los Angeles, looking exactly like I remembered it 25 years ago when it twirled around on the sidewalk.
It's great to know that my mascot of the Golden Age of Melrose Avenue found a happy home in one of the most beautiful towns I've ever visited. My curiosity has been satisfied and my heart is lighter with the thought that a piece of Melrose is still alive.
Here's a video that shows Tomenosuke toys going for a ride around Takayama, followed by some photos I took.
MORE: Art and Design