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BEVIS HILLIER

A Handful of Light : Alda Siegan Runs the Only Store in the United States That Sells Nothing But Kaleidoscopes

November 30, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

To most of us, a kaleidoscope is a child's toy. But to Alda Siegan, a kaleidoscope is a work of art--one that can change into a thousand other works of art.

Siegan runs the only store in the United States that sells nothing but kaleidoscopes. All the examples are new; antique kaleidoscopes interest her less because the mirror glass in the old instruments is of poorer quality. But some of the kaleidoscopes stocked at Kaleido, Antiquarius, 8840 Beverly Blvd., look like the telescopes of medieval astronomers or the scepters of troll kings.

The kaleidoscope--an instrument containing colored fragments that are reflected by mirrors so that symmetrical patterns appear as the instrument is rotated--was invented by Scottish scientist David Brewster in 1816.

Alda Siegan's kaleidoscopes range in price from $15 for a novelty in the form of a fountain pen to $990 for a grandiose Victorian-style "parlorscope" with a three-inch brass barrel. "Look through the eyepiece and turn the end piece," Siegan advises. "There are designs that look like they have a curve at the end. Those are called arabesques . When they come to a point, those are called rose windows . And people look at them and say, 'My God, the last time I saw this was in Notre Dame Cathedral or Chartres.' "

Siegan's infatuation with kaleidoscopes began five years ago when she and her husband, David, visited a shopping mall in Boston. While her husband waited outside, Siegan went into a small shop.

"I came flying back out," she recalls. "I told David: 'I have just seen the most gorgeous thing; you have to take a look at it.' " The kaleidoscope she wanted him to see was a first-cousin to a medium-size brass and copper example that she now sells in her own shop.

Not long afterward, Alda and David Siegan met Tom and Carol Paretti, a couple from Tempe, Ariz., who run a company named Workingwood. The Siegans bought a cedar kaleidoscope from them.

What changed a casual hobby into a fanatical quest and then a career was finding a good book, "Through the Kaleidoscope" by Cozy Baker (Beechcliff Books, Annapolis, Md.). "With every page I read," Alda Siegan says, "I got more involved. Cozy Baker describes most of the designers who are doing exciting things. And she writes about places where you can buy kaleidoscopes."

But Siegan was disappointed. One of the shops mentioned carried the work of only one or two designers at a time. Another was the gift center at the California Museum of Science, Industry and Aerospace Complex, Los Angeles, which no longer carried kaleidoscopes. "Nobody really had assembled the world of today's kaleidoscopes," she says.

At that time--1984--Siegan was Max Factor's director of marketing services for the division that sold to military exchanges. But Max Factor was about to move to Stamford, Conn., and Siegan had no intention of moving "back East." (She was born in New York City.) Having decided, therefore, to leave Max Factor, she was free to start a new career. "I woke up at 3 one morning and literally saw the light bulb above my head: 'Dummy! You do it; you start a kaleidoscope store.' " She tracked down Cozy Baker, who was helpful in putting her in touch with kaleidoscope makers.

Finding a location for the shop was difficult. "I was not carrying toys, and I was not carrying junk. I needed to be where people would recognize quality. That was more important than a lot of traffic. The collectors, I figured, would find me." Antiquarius market, with its mix of shops, seemed the right setting. Siegan found that if she kept the kaleidoscopes in glass showcases, people tended to walk by. But if she placed a selection on top of the counter, people would "stop to play," without feeling a commitment to buy; and some of them would buy.

"From this, you make a living?" is the kind of question Siegan gets from casual visitors to Antiquarius. Well, she is making a living. Since the store opened in September, business has been brisker than she ever expected. The number of kaleidoscope collectors is growing. Alda and David Siegan travel widely in their quest for more imaginative kaleidoscopes. She showed me the blueprints for an elaborate model she has ordered from a French designer.

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