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Beyond Ho Ho Hum

In the market for an unusual gift -- say a nose flute or chocolate brain mold? Specialty catalogs just may be your best bet.


In the market for a lighthouse coffee table? A medieval crossbow? A jewel-encrusted bonsai tree? Your search is over. Try the Lighthouse Depot, the Edge Co. and Gumps catalogs.

Still can't find those punching alien puppets, a nightingale water whistle or Tennessee alligator head? No problem. Try the Brainstorm, Anyone Can Whistle or By Nature catalogs.

What Benjamin Franklin started as a catalog in 1744 offering books to his countrymen has grown to a formidable business that reaches more than 100 million Americans and employs an estimated 600,000. And how far we've advanced!

Of course, specialty catalogs aren't the only place to find the kitschy and bizarre. But ask yourself, what's the best bet for finding a kite made from chartreuse Tibetan prayer flags? "We know we're not going to be on everyone's favorite purchase list," says Patrick Gaffney, co-owner of the Edge Co., a Vermont-based hunting and sporting catalog that hawks such products as Indian Hashishan wrist irons and Chi-Com air assault rifles.

While department stores consolidate, the specialty catalog business seems to be going strong. The Washington, D.C.-based Direct Marketing Assn. estimates it at $6 billion a year.

That leaves companies like the Lighthouse Depot, a 6-year-old, Maine-based catalog that sells nothing but lighthouse oddities ([800] 758-1444), growing "over the top," says co-owner Tim Harrison. He mailed 50,000 copies for Christmas 1994; this holiday 300,000 copies will be mailed. Of those numbers, "we generally do about 7% buyer response," says Harrison, who pegs the typical catalog mailer-purchase ratio as about 1% to 2%.

Many began as retail stores. Once the niche is established, and customers start clamoring for lists and printouts, owners can branch out into direct mail, even though, Gaffney says, "It's far from an exact science."

Design Toscano, a Gothic-era and gargoyle importing book, began when Michael Stopka saw a huge lit-up gargoyle at a bachelor party. He thought this was too cool to pass up, and in 1990 borrowed $6,000 from his aunt. Now, Design Toscano mails 5 million catalogs, tops $12 million in sales and ranks 58th on Inc.'s 500, a listing of the fastest-growing private companies. With 3,000% growth this year, the firm opened its first retail boutique on Chicago's swank Michigan Avenue.

Will Internet shopping dent the specialty catalog business? "People have always shopped from catalogs in this country," Gaffney says, "and somehow I doubt it's going to change."

There's no way of tracking how many necessities like ancient Egyptian calendar eggs and Notre Dame dwarf gargoyles are sold through mail, phone and fax. Here, however, is a small, subjective sampling of the far-out in the world of special direct mail order.

* The Edge Co. takes male warrior fantasy and sporting life to new heights. Started in 1984 by a pair of combat-veteran friends who used $800 of their life savings, they search the world for such appealing purchases as a Soviet AKM bayonet ($20), Mont Blanc pepper gas key chains ($13), a 150-pound steel-studded Camelot Knight helmet ($120), Iroquois tomahawks ($45), and an original "Order of the Red Star" Soviet World War II star ($40). To order, call (800) 732-9976.

* If it's a blowable musical instrument it's probably included in Anyone Can Whistle, a New York-based catalog that has a store outside Woodstock, N.Y. At a recent party Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was reportedly given the catalog's top-selling item, a nose flute ($12), and threatened to start a court nose flute band. Here find a German chirping bird teacup ($25), a clay double fipple flute ($95), a whistling jackfruit wood frog mask ($25) and an Aborigine didgeridoo ($295). Call (800) 435-8863.

* Brainstorms is the gross-out catalog for eternal pre-pubescents. Marshall Cordell launched it after purchasing the Anatomical Chart Co. in Skokie, Ill. Cordell added a few oddities in the back of the rather dry catalog--and revenues are now $11 million. Take your pick from chocolate brain molds ($20), plastic pink flamingos (250,000 sold in 1995 at $11.95!), a glow-in-the-dark skull candle ($25), and a radio and siren-sounding toilet paper holder ($20). The company claims to sell 30,000 skeletons a year (mostly plastic) and a few hundred real bone skeletons purchased from French prisons and nursing homes (retailing for $2,600). Call (800) 235-6472.

* Martha's Vineyard enthusiasts know the four-legged critter from the Black Dog Tavern, a logo of a black Labrador worn by fans. An international cottage industry, the Black Dog is sold through the well-known Martha's Vineyard store as well as the catalog. Look for everything stamped Black Dog: chowder sets ($36), flannel boxers ($16), umbrellas ($32) and wind chimes ($49). Call (800) 626-1991.

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