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Soap Plant: A Dime Store of the Offbeat

August 22, 1987|MICHELE SEIPP

Melrose Avenue stores come and go. But since 1980, the Soap Plant has not only remained, its evolved into something so weirdly appropriate that it might be the distilled essence of the street.

Why is this? "We have substance," said owner Bill Shire, a retailer since 1971. "We give you something to do and something to look at."

The Soap Plant certainly gives you something to look at. Its exterior, splashed with a whirl of eye-catching colors, is Shire's alfresco design.

Once inside this dime store of the offbeat, Shire's visualist's sensibility keeps your eye bouncing from one focal point to another. Look to your left and you see walls filled with primitive, intricate masks. To your right are counters lined with colorful cosmetics. Straight ahead, full shelves devoted to day-of-the-dead art. Look straight up and you see huge wooden mermaids and alligators swinging from a turquoise-and-yellow checked ceiling.

But one of the store's biggest draws, and one of its biggest products, is picture books. The tomes, which range from "Bikers--Birth of a Modern Day Outlaw" to "The Couch Potato's Guide to Life" to a Japanese collection of photographs of actor James Dean, bring in crowds of serious and not-so-serious readers who cram the narrow aisles.

A Soap Plant Devotee

John Lafia, 29, a screenwriter and director, is a Soap Plant book devotee who haunts the shop in continual search for mind fuel. "I usually go there for their photo books," he said. Photo books of "Duane Hanson sculptures, huge picture books on Mexico. I bought this one little book that was meant for Barbie doll collectors. It shows page after page of vintage Barbie dolls and their outfits--really outrageous. It's pretty necessary to go there if you need inspiration for any kind of film."

On one weekend night, Allen Badiner, blond hair tied back in a ponytail, strolled the aisles with seemingly little intention of buying. "I come here to meet interesting skeletons and people," he said with a giggle. By way of explanation, he suddenly scooped up a tiny day-of-the-dead sculpture--three clay skeletons perched on a bench.

"See, this is important. It's like an ancient shrine. Lots of people in other cultures go to visit their shrines. It reminds you of your own mortality. It lightens the load." He placed the sculpture back on its shelf--just above a sign that read: "Fragile. Please don't smash into a billion tiny pieces. Thanks."

Owner Shire has become so involved with his day-of-the-dead collections (which he carries year-round) that he recently opened an upstairs gallery, "La Luz de Jesus," which displays folk art in addition to more elaborate, costly day-of-the-dead items.

Downstairs, meanwhile, crowds continued to teem into the store in search of culture or pure amusement. Weekend evenings bring couples who stop at the store in the giddy interim between a Melrose dinner and an Equity waiver play.

During the day, teen-agers, tourists and just about anybody flock inside to giggle over Elvis Love Me Tender Hair Care products, fucia lipstick, plastic cacti and fake leopard coats.

Sometimes the customers don't mix. On one night, a wide-eyed blonde gawked at the outside window display--a set of leather cowboy boots with fake snake heads perched on the toes. "Oooo! Let's go in this store!" she said. "This looks really weird!" She and her friend wooshed hurriedly inside, nearly colliding with a one-earringed hipster who eyed them disapprovingly.

"The suit-and-tie crowd," he said with a sneer.

The Soap Plant, 7400 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 213-651-5587.

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