We’ve got a special treat today – we’re taking a trip down memory lane. Let’s dress for the occasion. Girls: break out the poodle skirt and pull your hair into a scarf-tied ponytail. Guys: feel free to put a little more butch wax on that flattop and impress the girls with that varsity jacket.
Ready? You go first. Open the door of 400 Western Ave. and you’re back in your past. Over there, a row of pinball machines. Off to the right Coca-Cola machines and old-style slot machines, you know, the kind where you put real money in the slot and pull the handle? On your left, there’s a jukebox: three plays for 25 cents. Shall we choose? Here’s “Pretty Woman” – how many weeks did Roy Orbison top the charts with that?
Now it’s time to meet our host on this journey – Don Orlandi, owner of Past Perfect, the store in which we’re standing. Since 2004, he and his team have been refurbishing and sometimes buying and selling, parts of our past.
Old-timers remember the building at the corner of Western and Howard streets – in the 1940s and ‘50s it was Baccala’s. The former grocery store has a comfortable feeling: scuffed wooden floors, plenty of light from a bank of south-facing windows.
Past Perfect has occupied the space since early this year, Orlandi said. Previously, he ran a family automotive business in Marin, occasionally fixing up a great old machine as a hobby. “I enjoy taking things apart and putting them together,” he said. So do co-workers Ed Davis and Perry Boswell. Orlandi called them “laborers of love.
“Most customers have stuff that’s been sitting around for years. It hasn’t been played all that time. What we love is making it play again, bringing back the noise and the fun.”
Not only do they get the pleasure of making a fine old machine work once more, they get to play with it after it’s fixed.
Orlandi talks about one item they recently finished and sold. “It’s called an animatron, from the 1920s – we enjoyed that thing no end. His real name was probably something like Dapper Dan or Drinking Dan. It was used for advertising a company, like a wine company.” The mechanical man holds a bottle in one hand, glass in the other. Dan pours the wine into the glass, then raises the glass to his mouth and drinks.
Of course, Dan doesn’t really drink – the liquid recycles through his body, Orlandi explained, and returns to the wine bottle, ready to pour.
“He’s so rare only about half a dozen were made. We worked on him for six months – found him at an auction in London and had him shipped here. A collector in LA bought him. It broke our hearts when he left.”
Orlandi and his team often get their material from pickers. “Like the guys on TV,” he said, referring to the reality show “American Pickers,” two men who travel around the country, buying, or “picking,” collectible and antique items. “They buy the pieces,” he explained. “They don’t work so we refurbish them. They’re either put up for sale or the collectors pay the bill and take back the item.”
Generally, Orlandi said, “we don’t want to buy any more stuff. These are large items and we only have so much room. What we normally do is fix it and take it on consignment; help you sell it.”
Another aspect that makes the job enjoyable is its uniqueness. “You never know what’s going to walk through the door.” He gestured behind him at a game titled Shoot the Mother-in-Law. “If it’s not one-of-a-kind, it’s certainly few and far-between. You can never predict what will be next.”
By now they’ve been in the business long enough they’ve built a reputation as doing good work in this niche market and for offering very special items such as Dapper Dan. With the unique pieces, he said, “I make sure people see it. I tell them, once it’s gone, the chances of you seeing it again are mil.”
Another unique piece is Laughing Sal. If you recognize the name, perhaps you met one of her sisters, the official greeter at San Francisco’s iconic Playland-at-the-Beach. This Sal was found in Ohio he said. She and her sister Sals – there were eight versions – were built in the late 1920s, after the stock market crash. “The nation was in such a funk, people wanted to do something to make everyone laugh, so they built Laughing Sal.” Sal wears a flowered purple dress, a sparkly necklace and earrings and a straw hat with flowers. Her face is finely detailed, her mouth open in a toothy grin. When turned on, she rocks with laughter, and it’s contagious. It’s hard to keep a straight face when Sal’s having such a good time. Orlandi said although she may be worth between $6,000 and $8,000, “we’re not interested in selling her yet. It’s fun to have her around.”
He pointed out while everything at Past Perfect works, the store is not an arcade. “We buy, sell, repair and refurbish.” If you’re interested in buying something, they’re interested in having you play it, though. It’s not like eBay, Orlandi pointed out. Here you get to feel, play with, experience what you’re buying. And if it stops working, just give them a call.
“Most of the stuff you see here, you saw and loved it as a kid. So everything here has not only a value, but there’s a sentiment behind that value,” he said. Although many items date to the 1950s and ‘60s, customers are all ages – almost everyone likes the fun of getting to be a kid again.
“Am I a kid?” Orlandi asked. “Most of the time. I work hard, but when I’m through, I get to play with your toys.”
Of course, since he owns the place, he gets to hop in the Wayback Machine any time he wants. “Every once in a while when I close down the shop, I’ll turn the lights down so this stuff gets lit up, turn on some favorite songs on the jukebox and its magic time. Then, it’s not a job, it’s a feeling.”
So, pop in a stick of Juicy Fruit, hop into that vintage convertible and cruise down the Boulevard. This time though, turn on Western and come on down to Past Perfect. Be there – or be square.