Catherine Dorman is a new BYT intern. We’re having her try at least one new thing each week. She’s tried 750 Words and tried to figure out the political affiliations of everyone on The Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful list. This week we sent her to out to buy the skeleton in the window at Monarch Novelties. And figure out what’s going on with Monarch Novelties.
This week I ventured into Monarch Novelties on 14th Street. It’s a mysterious shop in a little old building, reportedly without permanently posted hours but with a blow up skeleton in the window that my editor decided he needed. So I was sent to buy it and figure out whatever I can about Monarch and what goes on inside.
There are now posted hours on the door, but they are written with Sharpie on a piece of cardboard that can easily be removed so the mystery can be restored. I walked up to the door and a sign said “Open” so I pressed down on the ancient handle and attempted to bust down the door, assuming it was sticking. After 4 tries I realized it was locked. So I rang the buzzer a few times and aggressively peered through the window. Eventually a short, stocky older man in a blue work shirt and black pants came out from a side door and asked, “Do you need something?” I replied in the affirmative, and the man led me back through the side door.
This, it turns out, is the second generation owner; his father opened it as a spin off of some other carnival thing they did in 1956. To be honest he had a really, really heavy southern drawl, so I had a hard time understanding a fair amount of the few things he said. At first he was pretty open, but once I asked if I could take photos he gave me a hard “no” and then stopped telling me anything other than prices. Again, so much mystery.
Before he stopped talking to me, I did gather a few things. He lives upstairs. He’s at least in his mid 70’s. Monarch has been in this very building since 1956. He looks like a southern version of Uncle Vernon from Harry Potter.
As soon as I walked into the store I was immediately hit by the smell of must. It smelled exactly like my grandma’s basement that was filled with old books and golf balls, and sometimes a partially feral cat. It was that kind of dry, stale, chalky mustiness that makes the air feel thick and sticks in your nose.
He watched me very carefully the whole time I browsed the shop, maybe because I asked if I could take photos, or maybe because he wanted to be sure I didn’t try to steal any pins with JFK’s face on them- a hard urge to resist for many, I’m sure.
I’m pretty sure the general setup of the store is the same as it was when it opened back in 1956. I can’t imagine what it looked/smelled like when it was a fresh, new novelty shop, because the boxes and scents seem built into the space, and at this point they probably are. A relatively recent addition may be a bed almost immediately next to the door in the first aisle of the shop. There’s also a mini-fridge just above it on some boxes. Maybe he naps there in between customers. It’s a pretty sweet set-up.
The shop consists of two aisles lined on both sides by various items with varying purposes, none of which have much, if any utility. The back wall of the store has a couple of American flag banners strung across it, and there are also a few flags standing up among the merchandise. He’s definitely American, if the accent didn’t already clue you in. The merchandise, for its part, is quite the array; there are St. Patrick’s day hats, carnival toys, rolls of colorful paper, bubble wrap, string, solo cups, a grand opening banner, a paper lantern and so on, all seemingly randomly displayed. Despite the haphazard appearance of the space, he apparently knows exactly where everything is, which makes sense since he’s spent most of his life in the shop.
The second aisle was filled with boxes and boxes of political and random pins that have probably been in the store since the elections they reference. Some in favor of Nixon, some for Kennedy, some for Barry Goldwater, some that advertised the wearer’s membership in “Alcoholics Unanimous.” Your friends who shop exclusively at Urban Outfitters would be jealous, especially because they’re authentic.
There are no marked prices on anything but certain items have been blessed with a handwritten note that says “YEEAA.” I think this shows his extreme enthusiasm for the items such as postcards with a portrait of young Nixon or nostalgic reference to the Confederacy. Is “YEEAAA” the Southern old man equivalent of “YAAS”? Probably.
I assumed everything in the shop was cheap once I found out the massive skeleton I had been sent to procure was a mere $10, so I tried to buy a vintage “cat” (with YEEAAA written on the bottom) which is one of those oddly shaped objects with fluff around the edges that one would throw balls at in old timey carnival games, but he told me it was $50 dollars because it was handmade and nowadays they just make them out of milk bottles. The more you know.
I opted out of buying the cat and instead purchased three tiny Korean monkeys with horrifying dented faces and hair that is all too realistic.
I also bought one of the aforementioned Confederate postcards illustrated by someone named Bill “Horse Thief” Weiss, which is an unsurprising nickname for the person who created this:
It felt weird buying this. I’m not a fan, but I couldn’t not buy it.
Originally, the theory around BYT was that this place is a drug front, because it’s never open and seems super secretive, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I can’t see this guy sitting around with the “If I were 21 I’d vote Nixon” pins and cutting coke or growing weed. Pretty sure he’s staunchly anti-marijuana, if I had to guess. I would say it’s a safe bet that he does not use the Internet. He didn’t even use a cash register or calculator for calculating my tab, and when it came to figuring out the taxes he referred to a print out chart. I can’t help but wonder if he charges based on how much he likes/dislikes you.
I’m pretty sure he likes me because right as he was leading me back out the side door (does he ever use what looks like the main door?), he stopped and handed me a roll of orange ribbon because I’ll “probably need it for Halloween” and then repeatedly warned me about the step onto the street. As soon as I was out he shut and locked the door and probably returned to his napping bed.
Just like that, it was over. I’ve answered some questions about Monarch, but feel like I have a million more that I’ll never know the answer. But maybe that’s part of the magic.