The witty, the classy and the goofy all vie for space in Best of Times, Nancy Robinson's gift shop in Normandie Center.
"A lot of people have told me over the years that they just come in here when they need to get cheered up," Robinson said.
Fortunately for Robinson, enough of those people also buy things to keep Best of Times in business. The store celebrated its 30th birthday last weekend.
Robinson admits the shop's beginning was shaky. A former journalist and public relations professional, she started Best of Times with a friend after being laid off from a City Hall job in 1981.
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"We lost so much money the first year we got audited," Robinson said, "but it was uphill from there."
After her friend left the business, Robinson had a second partner for five years. She also worked for Boeing for 2 1/2 years to help make ends meet. She's been the sole full-time proprietor for the past 24 years.
The original idea was for a card shop, and the shop's large selection is still a big lure. Many are a little edgier than your standard Hallmark greeting, with references to politics, religion and body parts guaranteed to amuse some and offend others.
But it soon became clear that the store would need to sell other merchandise as well to stay in business. Robinson said she's "always looking for something a little unusual, offbeat things that make people laugh, but you also have to some name brands."
Currently, her biggest seller is the Vera Bradley brand of handbags and accessories, which cover much of one wall in a colorful array. "I special order every day for someone because it 's just tremendously popular," Robinson said of the line.
The Lindsay Phillips shoe line, Lolita line of painted wine glasses, candles, jewelry, cocktail napkins and gourmet food items are other steady sellers.
As for the unusual, there's no shortage, from magnetized dolls that let you dress Albert Einstein and Sarah Palin to "redneck wine glasses" fashioned from Mason jars.
Robinson has seen merchandising trends come and go. For a while, she said, her shop was the place to go for Beanie Babies, which she said "paid the down payment on my house" and a lot more. When they faded, Italian charm bracelets took their place.
Of course, Robinson is always on the lookout for the next big craze. Current candidates include Stamps wristwatches, "She Who Sleeps With Dogs" (or cats) nightshirts, and Gund Peek-A-Boo stuffed bears.
"This is a great grandma lure, so I ordered lots," Robinson said of the latter.
Best of Times has occupied several east-side locations, landing in Normandie Center at Central and Woodlawn four years ago.
The explosion of the Internet has made Robinson's job easier and harder. She remembers making 30 phone calls to track down a T-shirt featuring Tammy Faye Baker back in the 1980s.
"Everybody can get everything," she said. "The trick now is just to be first with it."