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3-HOUR TOUR

The Lab: X Marks the Spot to Test Theories of Retail : From the Living Room to the (Gypsy) Den, It's an Alternative to Hanging at Home

March 31, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. and

They call it "the anti-mall," and design and merchandise at the Lab, a 40,000-square-foot complex in Costa Mesa, "alternative." But even if a mall by any other name is still a mall, it's way more fun than its mainstream big brother a few blocks to the north.

11 to 11:10: The entrances say it all. At one end, just inside the rough-hewn concrete-and-pipe ocher exterior, a wall of doors in all shapes and sizes provides backdrop for old shoes, LPs and dried flowers, each perhaps suggesting one of the shops within; opposite, a triptych of alcoves features a Virgin Mary flanked by a pair of Cupids, one with a Heineken can. The entrance at the rear boasts a huge fountain composed of 40 or so rusting barrels.

The complex is anchored by an area called the Living Room, which has a pool table, comfortable chairs and couches, old Persian rugs, a red-velvet-curtained stage booked most evenings and weekend afternoons, a jigsaw puzzle, a TV and even a mirror. Return here at the end of your tour and hang out until Generation X hits middle age.

11:10 to 11:25: A fabulous sunflower with huge yellow petals and a blue face called "The Seedling" welcomes you into "Space for the Moment," an exhibit of wire sculptures by David Torosian at the Gallery. Gently endearing, mildly archetypal works include "The King" and a blue "Mermaid" with rusted hair and marbles for eyes. (Exhibits change monthly.)

11:25 to 11:40: Half a dozen surfboards hang overhead at Modern Amusement, and children's clothes feature 1950s and '60s fabrics: "Vintage clothes, only new," owner Jeff Yokoyama explained. "All new designs, all new production." Also for sale are a huge wooden saw ($48) and a rawhide shade rooster lamp ($42). Dominating the store is a seven-by-seven-foot T-bone steak flanked by a vintage rodeo photograph and a framed "How do you like your steak?" explanation of rare, medium and well done from the days when steak was king. Ambient music is provided by LPs including Elvis' "Roustabout" and Don Ho--"Again."

11:40 to 12:10: Tower Alternative--there's that word again!--sells incense and clothes along with its music, and it's a great place to browse. Literature runs the gamut from the "I Ching" to the Marquis de Sade. Alongside mainstream magazines are "Phat: Hot Stuff for Hoodlums," "Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed" and " 'O,' Fashions Fetish and Fantasies." Distinctive trading cards include vintage aircraft "Nose Art," "Drug Wars--the straight dope on America's dirtiest deals" and "Dictators--36 of America's most embarrassing allies."

12:10 to 12:25: The Lab Store features clothes designed by Shaheen Sadeghi, developer and owner of the complex, and vintage bottles and flasks ($5 unless otherwise marked) in keeping with the lab theme.

12:25 to 12:45: More flasks, only new, at Urban Outfitters, and at similar prices. Also "Dog From Hell" gourmet dinnerware for the pet set; an inflatable desk-top "Scream, Jr." ($9) based on the Edvard Munch masterpiece, and rubber duckies. (Oh, yeah, and alternative clothes.) Among the more interesting tomes are "Saints Preserve Us--Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You'll Ever Need" and "The Great American Bathroom Book, Single Sitting Summaries of All-Time Great Books," Vols. 1 and 2.

12:45 to 1: Trading cards at Collectors Library include "Sexy Robots" and the "Sandman" comic characters Death, Delight and Delirium. Alongside Marvel comics are "Pinhead" and "Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist"; the shop will search for such Golden Age classics as "Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis" on request. Fans of biomechanisex will appreciate Giger's oversize book "Necronomicon II" and Sorayama's "The Gynoids," while fleshy Vargas-like prints by Olivia will appeal to, gosh, who knows, the Playboy crowd? A porcelain Superman with a removable plastic cape "for easy storage" goes for $150, while a bronze bust of Doc Savage, one of 60, commands $1,200.

1 to 1:20: All beads are handmade, no two are exactly alike, at the Spencer Collection. "This is an alternative bead shop," said Spencer Brown. Popular "sputniks" (75 cents) are from India, while "hand of protection" beads ($2.25) are of domestic origin. In the incredible shrinking world department, Africans use kabuki face beads ($6.25) based on Japanese designs to ward off evil spirits and chevrons ($1.90) made in Europe for trading beads. Spencer incorporates them into his watches ($45 to $149). The shop also sells starter kits, and the staff will cheerfully help you make your first bracelet or necklace.

Beaded Masai gourds ($60 to $300) used for a drink of milk, blood and crushed beetles retain an amazing smell: "Pretty wild," agreed Brown, "soured milk and the stench of dried blood." Yum!

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