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Cheap Thrills

June 01, 1997|Danny Feingold

I've forgotten exactly what I was looking for when I walked into Bargain Circus on my birthday this year. Chances are I never found it. What I do know is that I happened upon a clearance of men's blazers, and 30 minutes later left with a fine olive specimen from the Rodon Collection. Set me back all of $24.99.

So it goes at Bargain Circus, perhaps L.A.'s most whimsical discount store. Housed inside a big red barn of a building at La Brea Avenue and Willoughby Street is an irresistibly bizarre hodgepodge that runs from Russian caviar to cheap guitars to women's lingerie. It's the kind of place where you may search in vain for a quart of milk but can choose between 33 varieties of wafer cookies.

Bargain Circus was founded in a different Hollywood location as a discount furniture repair shop. When it rained, owner Lee Dolf would erect a circus tent. A name was born. The store moved to its present location (once the site of a supply outlet for Charlie Chaplin's studios) in the late '50s and metamorphosed into an all-purpose knickknack shop. The Iranian-born Hamid Mossanen bought the business in 1990 (his brother Majid is co-owner). Since then he has undertaken major renovations and added such amenities as a service deli and an ever-mushrooming produce department, all while preserving the no-pretense, authentically offbeat ambience.

The adventure begins the moment you step through the doors. Perched on a narrow shelf are various decorative items you'd expect to see at a lawn sale. Today's selection includes two bucolic pieces of Asian folk art made from jade and shell, and a 2-foot black leather horse. Hurry while supplies last. Stroll into the store proper and you're surrounded by walls stocked with gourmet chocolates and cartons of Cheeze-It stacked in one corner, defying all known principles of merchandise organization. But anyone who has been to Bargain Circus is primed to expect the unexpected. Certain items, like dill pickles, seem to pop up everywhere. Veterans walk unfazed down aisles loaded with brands apparently chosen for their eccentricity.

The eclectic selection of goods and guilt-inducing low prices draw a melange of Orthodox Jews, Russians, Armenians and Westside connoisseurs. And the wallet-friendly policy seems to inspire a relaxed, congenial atmosphere. "Where are you going to find eggs for $1.09?" says Anya, an 88-year-old regular who comes by bus from Santa Monica and recites her movie credits while stocking up on cottage cheese.

Although unlikely treasures line every aisle, it is the area behind the cash registers that best showcases Bargain Circus' anarchic spirit. Here you'll find a lighted picture frame featuring a moving waterfall and river, a $50 violin hanging at a 45-degree angle, and a 2-foot-tall Victorinox Swiss Army knife display, moving parts and all. A locked case labeled MEN contains all the male requisites--cassettes, film, lighters, watches and condoms. Toward the back is a doorway leading to coed bathroom facilities. To get to them, however, you must first pass through a small room filled with adult films.

Mossanen smiles as he recalls how the store--which he says grosses $5 million to $8 million a year--was sued two years ago by Ringling Bros. for appropriating the slogan, "The greatest show on earth." He responded by offering his customers tickets to a competing circus. (The two parties eventually settled out of court.) But some still mistake Mossanen's establishment for an actual circus. "People call us and ask when the show starts," he marvels.

The answer: 9 a.m., seven days a week.

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