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Eclectic Avenues

With stores reflecting the passions of the people who own them, Silver Lake shopping is a trip into the unusual.

December 19, 1996|SUSAN CARPENTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tired of jockeying for sidewalk space with the big-haired and breast-implanted patrons of the once-gritty Melrose? Then head east to Silver Lake and neighboring Los Feliz where, in addition to the 99-cent shops, their competitors--the 98-cent shops--and various taquerias and coffeehouses, there exists some of the most unusual shopping in town. From inflatable reindeer to Bigfoot videos and books on autoeroticism, the stores are a celebration of the frivolous and the freaky.

Where Melrose Avenue can be brash, noisy and blatantly ostentatious, Silver Lake is unassumingly hip and quietly funky, much like the people who live here. Attracted by cheap rent and good restaurants, artists, musicians and writers inhabit this place in disproportionate numbers, and the shops along Sunset Boulevard and up onto Vermont Avenue reflect their sensibilities. Shopkeepers seem interested not in commerce, but in creating retail extensions of themselves and in fostering a sense of community.

Here is a sampling of the eclectic shops that make up the scene.

Amok Books, 1764 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 665-0956

To an unsuspecting visitor, the Amok Books projects a deceptively calm image with its long, lamp-lit corridor, tiki decor and soothing ambient soundscape. But pull any book from the shelf--"Gay Priests," "CIA Assassination Plots," "Lady Killers"--and you soon realize that Amok is anything but Crown or Borders.

"Some people come in here and they get appalled," says the misleadingly clean-cut Stuart Swezey, Amok's 35-year-old owner. "They think it's horrible and they wanna leave. The next person who comes in is like, 'Where has this store been all my life?' It's more than just shoving something unpleasant in your face."

With atypical categories that include Control, Mayhem, Sleaze, Sensory Deprivation and Scratch 'n' Sniff, it's tempting to disagree. But what Amok does is explore aspects of human behavior that are misunderstood or unresolved and make that research available to readers. "The interesting thing I've noticed over the years is what people stack up. It could be Noam Chomsky and it could be something really sleazy, and that's the way I am too," Swezey says.

Amok began in 1987 as a mail-order business and independent press, printing something called the First Dispatch, with information on where to purchase the strange and disturbing books Swezey had in his own collection. The Dispatch has since evolved into the much glossier Amok Journal, a bizarre compendium of the occult. "There have been times when I've thought, 'God, how many more crazy books do I need?' " Swezey says. "But then I get really excited about all this information and processing it, and I realize there's a point to it all. You have to keep developing your mind."

Ministry of Aesthetics, 1756 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 665-1735

Throbbing dance music bounces between orange walls reflecting off blue AstroTurf, and into the tufts of yellow fake fur that line glass display cases. Blue camouflage pants and glow-in-the-dark rain gear hang on a fire hydrant transformed into a clothing rack, while swarms of lipsticked Latinas and their baggy-panted boyfriends groove to the tunes of the store's live deejay. If Dr. Seuss had been a raver, he would have created Ministry of Aesthetics--an extrasensory and ultra-tactile clothing store for club kids.

"[Ministry of Aesthetics] is for someone who likes to dress funky and has some sort of exuberance," says shop co-owner David Miller, 30, reclining in an orange velour easy chair and sucking a grape Tootsie Pop.

Opened in August 1994, MOA is an extension of the Mondorama clothing line, which Miller and his 31-year-old partner, Ezra Gould, founded in 1993. Like the scene it caters to, the store is a fusion of music and fashion, featuring clothes by young designers and live deejays in the evenings.

"Clothing is one medium. Music is another," says the black-clad Gould, a former punker-turned-cyberhippie. "The heart of Mondorama has always been communication and the exchange of ideas through different mediums. We really want Ministry of Aesthetics to be a cultural center."

While their clothing line enabled Miller and Gould to open the shop, the two don't consider themselves designers. And while Ministry of Aesthetics is, by all appearances, a store, they prefer to think of it as a pivot point for youth activity. On a typical Saturday night, 1,000 kids pass through to get information on where that night's rave will be. So, in addition to flamboyant outer wear, the store also sells body glitter, candy necklaces and 3-D backpacks--everything a young clubber needs to party it up.

"We're interested in inventing new ways to look and experience music," Gould says. "Clothing is just costume, so we're trying to make a new level of need that might be a celebration of individuality and of your own uniqueness or wackiness."

Mondo Video A-Go-Go, 1724 N. Vermont Ave.; (213) 953-8896

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