It was a typical afternoon at The Character Co. store: A group of kids were sitting on the carpet watching a Daffy Duck cartoon, a businessman, attache case at his feet, was browsing through the comic book rack; a middle-aged couple stood beside the old Philco radio, listening intently as the Green Hornet instructed his sidekick, "Get my gas gun, Kato." An 8-year-old girl was pleading with her mother to buy a couple of cans of "real Popeye spinach."
At first glance, The Character Co. in the Fashion Plaza Mall of West Covina, a suburb east of Los Angeles, appears to be just a classy toy store -- but it is more than that. A brainchild of William G. Uglow, former director of retail merchandise at Walt Disney Productions, The Character Co. is a specialty store exclusively devoted to character merchandise for collectors and nostalgia buffs. "I wanted to bring all the cartoon heroes under one roof," he said.
The merchandise ranges from a $700 Mickey Mouse radio dating back to the '30s to 79-cent cans of Popeye-brand spinach. Showcases contain Little Lulu earrings, Sonoopy stickpins, Bugs Bunny and Jolly Green Giant wrist-watches, silver Hopalong Cassidy tokens and a rare Captain Midnight secret decoder badge.
Yosemite Sam mudflaps, girls' dresses with McDonald's golden arches embroidered on the front, and stuffed toys -- including a six-foot Cookie Monster -- abound. A rare Flash Gordon poster, signed by the artist, hangs on a wall.
The comic book rack offers a brief journey back to childhood. "Adults can come in here and read comic books without being embarrassed -- something they'd never do at a 7-11 store," Uglow says.
Uglow, 30, has a master's degree in business administration from Florida Atlantic University t Boca Raton, and retailing experience at a J.C. Penney outlet in Florida. When Disneyworld opened in Orlando, Uglow took a job as retail operations supervisor in Tomorrowland. In six years, he worked his way up to the head of retail merchandising at Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif. That's where he got the idea to go into business on his own.
Uglow contacted Ron Wasiluk, a Disney character designer, to lay out his store. "Memorabilia was the inspiration for the store -- Tiffany lamps, oak, lots of browns. The baffled ceiling and brown walls create a time tunnel effect, drawing you back ito your childhood and into th store," Uglow says.
Nostalgia items like an original Howdy Doody puppet are displayed at the front of the store to catch adults' attention. The big stuffed toy collection featuring the giant Cookie Monster is at the rear to lure customers all the way in.
Uglow says his tore caters to the collector rather than to children (only 10 percent of the merchandise is toys) "becaue the collector is a very important person. He reads all those collectors' magazines and writes letters all over the country looking for a particular item. Per capita they're some of the biggest spenders around."
One collector came into the store on opening day and purchased $781 of "new collectables," contemporary character merchandise. "He'll store them in a garage and hope their value goes up," Uglow says.
Another man bought nearly $500 of T-shirts, watches, books and figurines featuring the cartoon character Ziggy. "I think Ziggy will be the next Snoopy," Uglow says, "he's got great appeal because he has every man's problems."
Where does Uglow get the merchandise for his store?
Mainly from Disney, which handles its own goods, and from major licensing firms such as Licensing Corp. of America.
Sometimes Uglow has to beat the bushes to come up with the unusual. For instance he learned that Popeyebrand spinach was being sold in Canada, and with a bit of detective work found it was being manufactured by a small company in Arkansas.
"The man who owns the company didn't want to sell me any. He said he had all the customers he needed in Canada and didn't want to bother with a small one like me. But I begged and pleaded for some, and he gave in. It proved to be such a popular item that I'm now a good customer of his."
Uglow's research also discovered two new items due on the market soon -- Donald Duck orange juice from Florida and a Snoopy telephone that he says General Telephone is about to market.