Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Japanese Dollar Store

We arrived a few minutes before opening time, and I asked another woman, also waiting for the door to open, if she'd shopped at the Japanese Dollar store before.

"Yes,." she replied with a smile. "It's like shopping at an old dime store."

I hadn't thought about it that way, but I realized she was right. For those of you who only know K-Mart and WalMart, they were preceded by the dime stores: Kresge's, Woolworth's, Grant's, Newberry's, McCrory's, Ben Franklin. The dime stores, also called 5-and-10 cents stores, originally sold a variety of items that cost about five or ten cents. By the time I was a child in the 1940s, prices had increased a bit, but it was still possible to buy many things for less than a dollar.

In our small town there were three dime stores. With a weekly allowance of ten cents, I spent many hours browsing the merchandise and deciding how to spend my dime. Toys? Jewelry? Nail polish? Stationery? I still have a very small, pink glass elephant, with a sticker that says, "Made in occupied Japan." Most dime stores included a candy counter with many kinds of candy displayed in glass bins. It was possible to buy ten cent's worth of chocolate-covered peanuts or whatever sweet took my fancy. The clerk would scoop up a little more than I'd asked for, then shake it, piece by piece into the pan on the scale, watching the weight until there was ten-cent's worth. (These spring scales were not computerized, of course, and I suppose the clerk had to mentally calculate how much ten-cent's worth of candy would weigh, given the price per pound.) Then the clerk poured the candy from the scoop-shaped pan into a white paper bag, twisted it shut and exchanged it for my dime.

Later, when I started a part-time job at fifty cents an hour, I'd treat myself to Saturday lunch at the soda fountain which was also a feature of the dime store. I'd order a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich, toasted, and a coke for less than a dollar. Drugstores also had soda fountains, and once, for a brief time, my aunt worked at one. She'd serve us cherry cokes and phosphates, drinks made of brightly colored, flavored syrup and carbonated water.

Although the Family Dollar Stores and General Dollar Stores of today don't have candy counters or soda fountains, I still like to browse among the items costing a dollar or slightly more, and occasionally I find a bargain. But the Japanese Dollar stores are something else.

A few years ago, I encountered Ichiban Kan by accident, and was fascinated by the merchandise, apparently manufactured in China for the Japanese market. Many of the labels are written only in Japanese, and it can be difficult to tell what some of the more esoteric items are for. There are eyebrow razors and nose hair removers and other inscrutable tools for personal hygiene. I find the array of small plates and bowls in many shapes and colors very attractive, though I wouldn't like to wash or store so many pieces of dinnerware. You can buy plastic storage boxes for all kinds of food, and many specialized kitchen gadgets like rice paddles and molds. I always check the stationery supplies for unusual pens, portfolios, notebooks.

Ichiban Kan also has a good assortment of Japanese snack food, including "Remonade", the Japanese transliteration of "Lemonade", a carbonated soda in various fruit flavors, bottled in a unique glass bottle with a marble inside. The marble is pushed into the rubber-rimmed mouth of the bottle by the pressure of the carbonation and thus creates a seal. To break the seal and open the bottle, you push the marble down into the specially shaped neck which captures the marble so it won't go into the body of the bottle or come out into your mouth.

Ichiban Kan is a half hour from my house, and I don't get there very often. So I was delighted a few months ago to see that Daiso was opening a very large store in a near-by shopping center. Daiso, it turns out, is more accurately a Euro store; everything costs $1.50 unless otherwise marked. It's a lot larger and has a lot more stuff than Ichiban Kan.

There are many kinds of bags: handbags, cosmetic bags, cell phone bags. I buy a zippered foam envelope for my laptop. Browsing the housewares, I see colorful drinking straws, pleated paper cups and napkins, perfect for kids' birthday parties. The attractive plastic lunch boxes have inner compartments for various kinds of food. There are even several kinds of tiny squeeze bottles for meal-size portions of soy sauce. But I am puzzled by the lack of a catch or fastening on the lids of the lunch boxes. Then I discover the lunch box straps that hold everything together. These are decorated too; children would pay close attention to who had what kind of lunch box strap.

In addition to erasers in many shapes, there are notebooks of all kinds and sizes. The pencil caps in transparent jelly-bean colors, sprinkled with glitter and including a tiny eraser, are just what I am looking for. Two Christmases ago, I spent quite a bit of time in an unsuccessful search for colored staples. They have red, blue and green, in addition to silver staples at Daiso. Clips for stacks of paper? Yes, in coordinated sets; bright, dark or pastel colors. Wrapping paper to die for. Then there are the curious packages of colored silken cord and elastic cord in the sewing supplies, and Japanese-style bamboo brushes in the craft department. What about plastic bins for rice, plastic boxes for food and plastic trays of all kinds; cleaning supplies, toys and even little coats for your cat or dog? The hardware section includes little elasticized fabric "bonnets" for the bottoms of chair legs.

Now when I have guests, we head for the Japanese Dollar Store. When I feel the need for shopping therapy I can wander and ponder there for an hour. It's the kind of place where you stop in for one item and leave with two or three. But at $1.50 or $2.00 for each item, it's possible to spend less than $5 and go home with a satisfied feeling.


Anonymous Elysia said...

Thanks for writing this.

8:02 AM  

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