Once upon a time, American communities boasted a plethora of privately owned “mom and pop” stores that carried unique items guaranteeing no two were the same. Often they were operated by local residents whom you knew by name and, more importantly, knew yours along with your interests. Eventually big name corporations would arrive and wipe most of them out by featuring standard merchandise (usually cheaper) via large retail stores that enticed busy consumers with the luxury of a “one stop shop.” The dawn of the Internet would present further challenges as online sales and auctions made tracking down even the most elusive item as simple as the press of a button. Though we may have an easier time heading to our nearest Walmart or ordering something from the comfort of our homes, there will always be something lost in doing so. Those of us who grew up in a world dominated by private businesses know full well that there was a sort of ambiance being inside their musty walls and surrounded by a cornucopia of like-items you could see with your own eyes and touch with your hands. Say what you will about convenience, it will never compare with the full immersive “experience” these places offered.
One such establishment on the brink of extinction is the gag/trick shop. These were the type of stores that, by very definition, couldn’t help but brighten your day once you stepped inside. They offered funny & silly joke gifts such as fake doggie doo-doo, hand-buzzers, and the time honored whoopee cushion. They were the place to go to in March when you wanted to plan the perfect April Fool’s prank on your pals back when the holiday actually meant something. They’d be your first stop when planning a party and wanting just the right colored streamers and balloons along with embellishments reminding some of its more seasoned recipients that they’re now “Over the Hill.” It was also a popular stop for all Halloween needs and those seeking unique costumes as opposed to the garden variety ones offered in today’s retail chains. And they were always well-stocked with numerous magic tricks and props that young, aspiring David Copperfield’s could use to astonish their family and friends year round.
In celebration of these wonderful places, I’ll be continuing on with a series that began recently during a discussion on trick shops we Daves had during our southern road trip. Ironically, it took place just before we’d stumble upon one of its oldest examples (see David’s post on Caufield’s Novelty Store HERE) and began with David asking me about one I’d taken him to during a past visit to Illinois called “Chucks House of Magic.” I’d discovered it as a teenager in the neighboring town of Chicago Heights before it moved to my own Village of Homewood. Sadly, it would burn down Halloween night 2004 before relocating to a smaller space down the street that never quite did it any justice. Needless to say, it wasn’t long after David’s visit in 2012 that it closed its doors for good. With the wounds still fresh, I know full well that you never realize how much you love something until after it’s gone.
Fortunately for those living between Chicago, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin there’s still time to enjoy theirs…and a great one at that! J.J. Blinkers has been around since 1985 offering gag gifts, magic tricks, and costumes while also catering to those customers looking for irreverent gifts guaranteed to make a lasting impression (and let me add here that some language in this post may not be suitable for kids). Its owner, Joanne Linker, is one of those people you can’t help but like; overseeing a crew visibly devoted to her and the store.
Joanne was kind enough to do an interview and who better to tell us about the store than the one who started it all?
Dave: Share with us some background on JJ Blinkers and how it got started?
Joanne: It all started the first time I sat on a Whoopee Cushion….LOL!! 😉
Actually when I was around 14 yrs old, my grandma’s friend had a Dry Cleaner. I’d help her out and it was the first time behind a counter working with a real customer! Being behind the register was so “grown up feeling”. That is the first time I ever thought it would be fun to have my own store! (Now I “feel like a Kid” when I’m behind the register!)
When I moved from the Northwest side of Chicago to this area, I had 1 Full and 1 part-time Office job & a part-time Waitress job. I met my Business Partner Rich Hart during my waitress years here in Antioch. He liked my silly ideas for a store, and in May of 1985 we found ourselves walking around town & found the building we have been in for 30 years!
The store has grown so much since the beginning. We started out as a small Gifty-type merchandise along with Emmett Kelly Jr. figurines. Emmett had been here twice in person and his Hobo/Clown figurines were a hit! Now, say “CLOWN” to someone, and most people get the Hee-Bee-Gee-Beez!
JJ BLINKERS is currently about 4,000 sq and we have evolved into a Joke, Magic & year-round Costume shop! We’ve added Bachelorette Gags and a Magic Shop into the mix as well. Our latest accomplishment is being a Licensed Illinois Lottery Dealer!
Dave: What’s your best-selling gag?
Joanne: Anything TACKY! But Squirrel Underpants do very well….seeing that everyone has naked squirrels running around their neighborhood! That’s just gotta stop!
Dave: What is your best selling magic trick?
Joanne: Instructional DVD’s sell very well as they show you visually how to do many tricks! As far as the bestselling, probably the tricks we show them!! If they are amazed themselves, they know they can do the same thing with practice!
We try to have our Mystic Mike here as much as possible. If needed after you buy the trick, he will show or explain it to give you a better understanding before you leave so you can go home and practice.
Magic is a popular hobby for kids in that it is fun to do and it also has the additional benefit of boosting self-confidence and social skills!
We try not to oversell the enthusiastic first-timer as we don’t want them to get overwhelmed and give up. Learn 2 or 3 really well, and then it’s fun to add something new each time you stop by!
We have Card Tricks, Coin Tricks, Gimmicks & Illusions!
Dave: Aside from Halloween, what is your peak sales season?
Joanne: Our Grown-Up Room does well year-round, but of course peaks at Valentine’s Day! …Mardi Gras themed parties are also year-round but peak during Mardi Gras with our big assortment of Masquerade Masks & Beads! St. Patty’s Day brings out the Leprechaun in everyone and they love our attire & accessories for that Green Beer Drinking Party! ….We sell & rent Easter Bunny Costumes for Egg Hunts or pictures with the Easter Bunny!….. We also sell & rent beautiful Santa Suits, Beards & lots of Accessories for your favorite Santa or Ms. Santa for your Christmas Parties or family Christmas Eves! Of course, those are just holidays.
During the school year, all grades have Projects and Spirit Week that the kids dress up for. It helps that we are open until 8pm Mon-Friday for those times when the kids say at the last minute, “Oh, Mom, I have to dress up as Abraham Lincoln for my book report………..TOMORROW!”
Many customers also like having themed Birthday Get-Togethers too! There are Murder Mystery Parties where you need to be in Character!
When there just isn’t anything to celebrate, our small town people just make up something!!! Like Half-Way to St. Patrick’s Day Parties or Half-Way to Halloween Parties! There is no doubt about it, our Chain-o-Lakes Area has the most fun people around!!!
Dave: What’s the weirdest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?
Joanne: I think the most fun requests are the ones when someone comes in and is embarrassed to ask for what they are looking for! It might be Dog Shit…..and by the time they explain it while going in circles….we are SO excited to not only have ONE KIND….but MANY kinds to choose from!!! Proudly we say, “ We have Dog Doo, Kitty Crap, Hide-A-Key Dog Crap, The Floater, Poo Pens, Party Pooper, Dirty Diaper Joke, Stepped in Dog Doo……….just to name a few. LOL!
Then there’s those who are too embarrassed to say they are looking for something that farts! “….ummmm…something that passes gas, breaks wind, the smelly stuff…. …something you’d need Bean-O for….the sound my husband makes…”
“Well ma’am….we have LOTS of things that FART! We have Remote-Controlled Fart Machines! Fart Whistles! Whoopee Cushions! Self-Inflating Whoopee Cushions! Le Toot! Stink Bombs! Liquid Ass Bottles, Fart Spray! Stink Loads”…….hahahahaha! They’re a little less shy by the time we get through with them! Can you say ART? Art is a beautiful thing! Just put an F in front of it….FART can be a beautiful thing too! Ahhhhhh……… (of course, only men fart) 😉
Dave: Share a memorable story revolving around the store.
Joanne: In the beginning years, I used to bring my Yellow-Nape Amazon Parrot to the store everyday, rain or shine. The pet shop across the street would tell any customers that were interested in buying a parrot to check out ours and how well it speaks! (She talked just like me!) Our parrot would talk like crazy, but not when you were in front of her. So people would talk through the door to get her to talk! One day, one of their customers came in to hear Dixie. I was busy and they were talking and talking and not a word from the bird. Then I realized…Oh my Gosh!!!! I didn’t bring Dixie in THAT day because I had to do a big errand that morning and didn’t want to leave her in the car! So I went through the other office door….AND TALKED LIKE HER!!! LOL!! LOL!! I had to say she had just taken a bird bath and I didn’t want to open the door for her to get chilled! It still cracks us all up!
Dave: If you could invent your own gag item, what would it be?
Joanne: A Rubber Chicken that gags when you choke it! Then it has a button on it that says, “Don’t choke your Chicken!” Hmmmmm…..maybe we can get it really done!
Dave: What’s your #1 bestselling mask or costume?
Joanne: Throughout the year….Superheros & Pirates! But Steampunk is picking up speed! We also have lots of wigs in all colors and styles and we are surprised at how fun they can be at Bachelorette Party Trips! (That final fling is more fun when you’re not yourself!)
Dave: With so many specialty shops going out of business over the years, what do you attribute the longevity of JJ Blinkers?
Joanne: Not wanting to give up. We still love “Playing Store”.
We laugh and think…..Hmmmmm…..how nice would it be if every JJ Blinkers Fan that can’t make it in as often as they would like donate $5 to keep us going so we can be there when they need us, things would really be SO much better!
Hey! That gives me an idea! Maybe we’ll start a “JJ BLINKERS RUBBER CHICKEN CLUB! $24 gets you a 2-year membership! And we’ll give them a…..
* TWO YEAR MEMBERSHIP CARD good for 15% off all purchases!
* JJ BLINKERS Tee-Shirt!
* A coupon for 35% off any one item in the store!
* Rubber Chicken Key Chain!
* Whoopee Cushion!
* And other silly little fun stuff!
Dave: I’ll never forget the line to your store during Svengoolie’s appearance in 2011. Now that he’s a national celebrity, are there any plans for his return? What was it like for you that day? (full story covered at the time HERE)
Joanne: We wanted SO bad to have him this year to celebrate our 30th year…but just couldn’t swing it. 😦 Next year we will try again!!!!
We had the biggest crowd he’s ever seen this far North! Svengoolie is an amazing man.
We worked it out that he would stay til EVERYONE who came to see him and stood in line (over a block long!) would be able to get into the store to visit. He never took a break the whole time. He was gracious to his fans and his fans were astounding. I couldn’t believe how nice and respectful they were of not only Sven, but our store. They were patient, kind & grateful for the chance to take pictures with him. We were proud as peacocks ourselves to host him!
Visit JJ BLINKERS Joke, Magic & Costume Shop!
896 Main Street ~ Antioch, IL 60002 847/395-3770