POMONA — Pining for a full-color Elvis Presley belt buckle or a secret decoder ring? You might try downtown Pomona.
Anything from turn-of-the-century orange juicers to snow domes with fake flakes falling on Snoopy can be found--for a price--in the Antique District, a two-block stretch of pack rat subculture.
More than 450 antique and collectibles dealers sell their eclectic secondhand goods in 21 stores in the 100 and 200 blocks of quiet, tree-lined East 2nd Street.
The dealers' wares--culled from attics, estate auctions, garage sales and swap meets--have passed from owner to owner to. . .
Souvenir spoons, tie tacks, mounds of costume jewelry, dishes, pots, pans and other bric-a-brac sit in display cases; old furniture and memorabilia of every sort cram the remaining space--all waiting for someone to give it another chance.
"Every antique dealer started as a collector," said Mike Hawkins, owner of Inland Empire Antiques and the Pomona Antique Center, a mall of more than 100 small antique and collectible dealers. "You finally get to the point where you either buy a bigger house or you start a store."
Although antique stores and malls dot the San Gabriel Valley in such cities as San Dimas, Glendora, Monrovia and Pasadena, merchants say Pomona's Antique District attracts many collectors because it has the largest number of dealers in one permanent, concentrated area.
Visitors from other states and countries frequently patronize the district because of ads at Southern California airports and hotels, merchants say.
But probably the biggest event that draws people to 2nd Street is the Collectors' Street Faire, held six times a year, Hawkins said. The next event--Saturday, Nov. 28--will be the 50th. About 150 booths will line the street outside the shops, Hawkins said. Dealers will offer items as mundane as chairs and as unusual as porcelain poultry.
Steve Williams, owner of About Antiques, has more than 500 covered dishes shaped like nesting chickens at home in his collection. Dozens more of the old, multicolored glass and porcelain hens line his shop windows, serving as conversation pieces for passersby.
"We probably have one of the largest collections you'll find," he said, polishing an 1850 French rooster soup tureen worth $5,000. "We get calls from customers all over the country about them."
B. J. Smith, a dealer at Chief Mini Pockets, collects items depicting African-American history, advertising promotions and, he said with a grin, Pez candy dispensers.
"I have over 350 of them," said Smith, who has his eye out for a rare piece that resembles Mr. Potato Head. "I'd really like to find one of those."
Empire House Antiques owner Larry Blinn said he looks out for old tombstones and mortuary signs for a customer who collects anything having to do with dead people. The collector is, of course, a mortician.
"Name something, and I guarantee somebody collects it," Blinn said.
In many stores, clothing, knickknacks and jewelry from different eras blend in a dizzying array of American pop culture.
On one bulletin board crammed with lapel pins, 1970s disco king John Travolta struts beside a stern Wendell Willkie, onetime presidential candidate. A box of "Star Wars" dolls sits atop a 1940s war bonds postcard of a soaring Navy bomber that asks Americans to "Keep 'Em Flying."
Customers do not seem to notice the hodgepodge, or at least do not mind it. Most said they enjoy poking around to find a 100-year-old wooden inkwell, Bee Gees lunch boxes or other treasures.
"I come down here to be distracted," said Lupe Martinez, a Pico Rivera artist sporting wild, jingling earrings. "Sometimes I find a bracelet or pin that I like, but I usually just like to see the strange things that keep popping up here."
Second Street wasn't always home to collectible lovers. Thirty years ago last month, what was the nation's fourth pedestrian shopping center--Pomona Mall--opened on the site to great fanfare.
Reeling from the success of two regional malls--Eastland Shopping Center and the Pomona Valley Center--built in the decade after World War II, downtown merchants tried to draw people to their shops in 1962 by closing off 2nd Street to traffic and putting in trees, benches and sculptures.
The resulting nine-block-long mall--from Park Avenue to Linden Street--featured 91 stores and attracted about 150 municipal delegations from across the country seeking ways to renovate their own decaying downtowns.
Area businesses paid for the improvements themselves by creating an assessment district. Planners saw it as the shopping center of the future and even considered building a monorail system. But by 1966, downtown merchants said, the new Montclair Shopping Center a few miles away had taken many of their customers.
"This area just became a ghost town," Hawkins said. "You could look down the street and see nobody."