- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

It is a vista of domestic possibilities, a horn of plenty, a wealth of must-haves, whatnots and gewgaws. It is both market and mayhem. Behold the mighty dollar store, home of everything and anything.

The buck rules.

Here we find plastic pill crushers, Bibles, shower caps, Coca-Cola glasses, pregnancy tests. There is a cornucopia of dish mops, whisk brooms, shower squeegees, freezer pops, hair scrunchies, Phillips-head screwdrivers, bath tumblers and a 10-pack of squared-off fake fingernails in a shade called Cajun Shrimp.

Here we find pearlized night lights shaped like Jesus Christ, rose-scented candles and swell fishing lures with hard steel hooks, red eyes and a spray of luxurious tentacles. A rack of bejeweled thong panties looms near the front door, cozy by key rings and a daily special: Circus Peanuts candy and marshmallows coated with something that looks like toasted coconut but isn’t.

The dollar store is a place of spectacle, discovery, promise, incongruity, satisfaction and sublime tackiness. We cannot ignore the cultural aspects of it all, though.

The dollar store is a showcase for the brand less traveled. Why look. There’s Bang Cleanser.

Bang.

Well, it comes in a sprit bottle, so that’s a start. Yet right next to Bang is Bab-O, which was the cleanser of choice among savvy homemakers almost seven decades ago and a popular sponsor of serial radio programs of the day. And there’s Igloo Iced Tea, a compact blue box that reveals, on closer examination, that it is made in Indonesia.

The dollar store, as cultural force and commercial presence, is both alarming and reassuring.

Daunted by aisles full of silk flowers, black-light bulbs, doggy chew toys and little signs that say “Welcome Friends,” we wring our hands and wonder: Egad. Where did it all come from? What is our society coming to? Why is that person buying so many whisk brooms? Why? Why?

Then we spot something irresistible.

Fancy wrapping papers and goody bags, fluted iced-tea glasses, little picture frames, fake pearls, bird feeders, nifty change purses, garden statues, cool Christmas ornaments. We race to buy them, convinced there’s been a mistake. Surely this nice glass is more than a dollar. Why, it’s from Anchor Hocking. Quick, get me six.

The dollar store is therapy for those who need to know that yes, one still can get the soap dish of one’s dreams for 99 cents. Of course, the dollar store can be a sobering place when one glides up to the cashier with a shopping cart full of such dreams. That is when dollar store identity crisis sets in, a condition common to women who stop in to buy a soap dish and leave with enough toilet paper, spoon rests and plastic storage bins to supply the Pentagon, or at least the E-Ring.

The buyer in question will say “Uh-oh” several times, then stare off in to space, trying to determine if the purchase is warranted, rational or some strange new form of hoarding or hysteria.

Meanwhile, there will be a floor show of a different sort over on the toy aisle after a sturdy tot is informed that he will not be able to take home the entire wall of miniature “real police tommy guns” hanging within reach of his chubby fists.

Is it all just random chaos?

Heavens to Carl Sagan, no. From top to bottom, dollar stores are designed to lend a sense of discovery to patrons as they stroll under neon lights, serenaded by light rock music and guided by a gum-snapping goddess in a bright blue smock. The shops are a no-frills fix for anyone hunting the lair of a fat bargain. And everyone loves to bag a fat bargain.

Dollar stores across the nation sold $27.5 billion worth of merchandise last year, according to Information Resources, a marketing group. To put this into perspective, consider Dollar Tree. With 3,119 stores in 48 states, it is the nation’s largest dollar chain — selling $856 million worth of stuff by March — up 14 percent from a year ago. Dollar General and Family Dollar stores boast similar figures.

Dollar fever, however, has gone global. Britain has Woodland and Eurobond. The Netherlands has something called the Hema, where all is priced at a guilder. Norwegians visit the Tier’n, short for 10 kronen ($1.40). Swedes favor the Bubbeltian, short for 10 crowns ($1.25).

It’s Todo a 100 shops in Spain (“everything for 100 pesetas”) and 38000 lei in Romania. (Don’t ask.) Japan has its 100-yen shops, Australia its Two Dollar Shops and Reject Shops. Last but not least, the United Arab Emirates has no particular translation for dollar stores save “kul’lo shayy’in Ashara dirham” stores, where everything costs 10 dirhams (about $3) or less.

“Dollar stores are just hitting their stride,” notes Thom Blischock of Information Resources.

Indeed. Now bring on the Bab-O. We’ll take three bath pillows and a chew toy, too.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and whisk brooms for the Washington TImes’ national desk. Reach her at 202/636-3085 or jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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