Friday, November 20, 2009

The John Emporium

The building surprises you when you stumble across it, and at first you suppose it is a Greek revival folly -- but then the Art Deco figures in wall niches between narrow grilled windows look vaguely Egyptian. Cypress trees in giant pots line the roof. Plain white columns front the three story edifice. A few of them lay on the courtyard ground to provide seating; their broken bases serve as tables.

The entrance's huge brass and bronze double-doors are thrown wide -- bass relief priests and priestess in geometric headgear line the doors' insides, and seem to watch over the portal. You enter. Monotone grey hexagons, flanked by black and yellow triangles, tile the foyer. Etched decagons, squares, stars, and octagons interweave on frosted glass panels set into the walls. Music from a concert harp draws you forward.

The foyer opens onto a circular atrium. Two ramps -- tiled in sinuous designs -- coil around the atrium to the rooftop garden. Small curved concrete benches nestle in the larger curves of planters filled with eucalyptus and giant gunnera. In the center, a silver clepsydra indicates the hour. On top of the water clock, a signpost supports six simple arrows of green, dark blue, red, black, silver and purple.

The arrows point to six archways surrounding the atrium. Each entrance leads to its own sanctuary of commerce.

Green as peacock's emerald eye

A simple wire stand in front of the entrance holds an iridescent green placard, which reads "Tableau Vivant." Inside this place, Tiffany lamps illuminate displays of jewelry inspired by ancient Greek and Roman jewelry, medieval art, Art Nouveau and Art Deco -- silver wires; hematite beads; sprays of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires; cloak pins; bracelets -- lining the walls. Pre-Raphaelite robes -- cloaks of velvet, veils of silk, cascades of silver bells -- and Edwardian jackets adorn mannequins. The place is resplendent with vests, cravats, and cavalier gloves; boots, belts, and suspenders; feathers and pendants. Hats, yes -- and diadems and crowns, too.

At the back of the room, two stage hands move scenery into position for a bride, while a photographer shines a spotlight through a grill to create zones of shadow and light onto the stage. Other customers wait for their turn on the runway.

Blue as star-filled cobalt sky

Before the archway of the next place, silver letters on a blue placard read "Subtle Machinations." The starry heavens are reproduced on the ceiling. Pendulum clocks stand sentry along the room's perimeter. Just inside, a young man and a woman play Senet. Their quadrant of the store holds Lewis chessmen and other chess sets. Arrayed behind them are other games: backgammon, circular and hexagonal chess, Alquerque, Go, Fidchell and Tafl.

Across an isle, an attendant winds one of many silver pinned, glass cased music boxes with a filigree key. Other spring-driven automatons rest nearby. Next to these are Antikythera mechanisms, models of Stonehenge, and other orreries. Telescopes, sextants, and star charts hold court beneath a hanging model of the solar system. The final quarter of the store is magnetically driven mobiles, leaded crystals and chandeliers.

And glow-in-the-dark star stickers.

Red as bard's most crimson rose

A round, tiled table, like a small stone dais, has its station before the store entrance. On it twist glass tubes and retorts filled with water and mint leaves over a low flame. Before this alembic a red sign reads, "Quintessence." The room inside is lined with wood cubby holes filled with dark bottles and shiny canisters. Small clear glass jars of coffee beans -- used to clear patrons' pallets between aromas -- sit at stations scattered throughout the room. The left hand side of the place is filled with balsams, unguents, oils, potpourri, and aromatics. The right side is for infusions, teas, tinctures and tisanes. An island counter holds retorts and flasks; teapots and tea sets; bath salts, bees wax, incense briquettes, candles and candle holders.

Five stations, each furnished with a large reference herbal, are staffed by attendants knowledgeable in the ways of blending aromas, moisturizing, exfoliation, simple massage, and the wonders of chocolate.

Black as forests under snows

The grey placard has black letters with white shadows reading "Evocations." Black and white tiles adorn the floor. One side of the entrance is a café with a dark granite counter inlayed with squares of hematite. A small fire burns in the corner hearth, surrounded by large Arts and Crafts chairs and small tables. Tapestries depicting personifications of Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Geometry, Arithmetic, Music, and Astronomy hang on the ends of shelves -- which hold tomes such as Gerard's Herbal, Newton's Optics, the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, Sagan's Cosmos, CG Jung's Red Book, reviews of MC Escher and museum surveys. A reading table holds the current editions of various periodicals. And a magnifying lens.

A seventh shelf displays blank books, paper making tools, and binding supplies; embossers, flower presses, stamps, ink pads, brushes, paints, and punches; calligraphy nibs, glass pens, and inks., and ink pads. An attendant in a black apron, his white shirt sleeves rolled up, inks metal typeface at a small press, overseen by an arc of manual typewriters.

"Yes," he tells you when you ask, "We do have Wifi here."

Silver as Dianna's argent orb

The harpist in front of the shop packs her harp away and is replaced by an oboe trio. Egyptian columns, topped with capitals sculpted as the face of cow-headed goddess Hathor, flank the entrance. A music stand displays a grey placard with silver embossed letters reading "Harmoonia." Inside, large prints taken from Robert Fludd's De Musica Mundana, into which cows have been playfully inserted, adorn the walls. Wall tiles show variations on cats with fiddles and cows over moons.

Arranged roughly by age, musical instruments -- rattles, sistrums, crumhorns, harps, kalimbas, drums, glass organs, hurdy-gurdies, whirling plastic tubes, synthesizers -- fill the shop. A small dance floor lays in the middle of the area. LEDs in the floor display dance steps. Blank sheet music, tuners and tuning forks, batons, rosin, and other supplies are on display next to a light board which turns the playing music into a cascade of sine waves, bouncing dots, and color washes.

The attendant encourages you to sing your own light show.

Purple as Time's amethyst robes.

Before the entrance of this market, a weathered stone hand holds a purple placard which reads "Ozymandias." A tile meander leads you into the store and a labyrinth of gazing globes; statuary, both antique and modern; stone and stainless steel obelisks; path luminaries, and weather vanes. Benches of all sorts for the weary are scattered throughout.

You follow the tile maze past kinetic sculptures and Archimedean solids of wood, glass, silver and steel spinning lazily near burbling fountains, illuminated misters, and indoor waterfalls of etched glass and textured obsidian. Armillary spheres and sundials -- bowl, pierced gnomon, and garden -- stand station within the winding aisles of merchandise. Wind chimes sound infrequently.

Beneath a lair of gargoyles, the attendants mix small amounts of concrete for a class of aspiring backyard sculptors.

❧ ❧ ❧

Back in the atrium, you find a bench and lean back against its companion planter. The water clock's sounds mix with the oboe trio's music. You feel a little like a swimmer who has beached on the shores of a swift river.

A middle-aged man walks out of the green store with a walking stick and you wonder how you missed those. A boy with a spinning LED toy dashes by you; you don't recall seeing his whirligig for sale, either. At the bistro there is a young couple, heads inclined as they read a green, leather-bound book together.

Next time, you decide, you'll take one venue at a time, coming back regularly to make little discoveries. Who knows, perhaps next time you'll meet another explorer.
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