Kitsch It Good-Bye

Flashback closes up shop.

By Peter Erickson

On Sunday the atmosphere at Flashback, the Lakeview store jammed with 60s and 70s memorabilia, was like that of an Irish wake, with the deceased in attendance. Ritz crackers, Bugles, sugar wafers, potato chips, and Cheez Whiz were laid out for the mourners. A video camera, smaller than a slice of white bread, recorded last-minute buyers filling up shopping baskets and regular customers stopping by, some unaware of the momentousness of the occasion. It was the store’s final day of business. Jane Jefferies, an artist and longtime employee, arrived with a sculpture she’d made, a highly detailed miniature of the store. Charles Criscuolo, Flashback’s 40-year-old owner, was touched by this pop-culture Thorne Room. He blew his nose.

When Criscuolo was growing up, his father ran “what was called back then a junk store” in Logan Square, he says. “All his life he sold things, from coal to yarn.” The business rubbed off on his son. “I used to do flea markets and really enjoyed them. I thought it would be fun to open a store selling the same things.” He opened Flashback on Belmont near Seminary in 1989 and moved to 3450 N. Clark four years ago.

“Back in the beginning I had no competition,” he says. “Even though the 60s and 70s were hot, no one else had a store about them. I was the first.” The store got a lot of publicity. Reporters called Criscuolo for quotes on pop culture. He was a regular on Kevin Matthews’s show on the Loop. The IRS even phoned him once. “My heart began to pound,” he says. “But they didn’t want to talk to me about Flashback. They were going after a tax evader and they wanted to ask me about some collectibles’ values.”

When customers entered Flashback, they walked into an ocean of pop culture merchandising. Criscuolo had squeezed the residue of 20 years into less than 600 square feet. The walls were covered with posters, T-shirts, magazines, lunch boxes, videos, wallets, key chains, action figures, models, cups, and toys featuring the Partridge Family, the Brady Bunch, Cap’n Crunch, The Love Boat, Kiss, the Monkees, hippies, Gilligan, disco, and Scooby-Doo.

“When I started the store I sold little of what you see around you,” Criscuolo says. “I mostly carried FiestaWare, 60s transistor radios, decorative things. A lot of books and records, which I have phased out. Some of the original things I sold could be called kitschy. Then I let my customers tell me what they wanted, and I obliged the best I could.

“For the long haul I don’t think Charlie’s Angels or Welcome Back, Kotter, things like that, have much collectibility. It’s mostly the people who grew up remembering these pop celebrities who fuel the market. Sooner or later attrition will set in. But the Beatles, Star Wars, Disney, Pez, and really attractive items will have legs.”

Flashback’s ten-foot-tall windows were always entertaining, featuring photos, tabloid headlines, and computer-manipulated images commenting on current events. After Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure, the windows proclaimed “Pee-wee’s Play With Yourself House.” When O.J. Simpson was arrested, Criscuolo scattered orange juice cans with a special label (“Canned Juice”). Tributes to Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, and John Denver went up after their deaths.

But like many dead celebrities, Flashback’s not going away forever:

it’s continuing on the Internet ( “I’ve been on the ‘Net for two and a half years now,” says Criscuolo. “My sales there have beaten the store five out of the last six months. It’s sad closing the store, but I’m excited by the Internet.”

On closing day, Criscuolo’s dressed in a Polo shirt, jeans, and worn sneakers. He never wears any of the things he sells. “That stuff’s not for me,” he explains. So what does he collect?

“Twenties,” he says, smiling.