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Where American Junk Gets Top Dollar

December 20, 1990

TOKYO (AP) _ It may not do wonders for solving the trade imbalance, but the Japanese finally have found U.S. products for which they are willing to pay big bucks - secondhand goods.

A U.S.-style thrift store in southern Tokyo called Panic Melon Studio Beverly Hills has three floors crammed with bits and pieces of postwar Americana that look as though they belong in a forgotten attic corner.

But in Japan, they sell for eye-popping prices.

A gallon 1957 Coca-Cola bottle sells for $285, a worn out but working General Electric refrigerator from the 1960s for $1,880, a 1975 Mattel talking Pink Panther for $210.

An old-fashioned Hoover vacuum cleaner goes for $285, a faded, chipped dresser for $620 and a diner counter stool for $285. Even empty egg cartons are available at $3.60 each.

″This is an aesthetic of the passe, dirtiness and ruin,″ Panic Melon supervisor Bonjour Watanabe says with a wave of his hand.

″We spend a lot of effort trying to present unfashionable American things as fashionable for the Japanese.″

There is indeed a fashion move toward ’50s and ’60s Americana, says Hiromi Egawa, an editor at a monthly magazine for young middle-class women. ″Jackie Kennedy is very popular now,″ she says.

Watanabe, 33, says the store rakes in about $45,000 a month on sales and rental of goods that he and his staff collect from thrift stores, flea markets and individual collectors in Los Angeles.

More than half of Panic Melon’s income comes from rental for props for fashion magazine shoots and television commercials, he says.

A number of other stores in Tokyo also sell used American goods from stone- washed denim to bird-shaped decoys.

″Sometimes an American customer will wander into the store and pick up an item with an old American price tag of $3 still stuck on it,″ Watanabe said. ″When we tell them the actual price, say $210, the American usually gets very angry, and we almost get into a fight.″

Then Watanabe explains to the visitor that a sizable investment went into obtaining the wares because of air fare, lodging and gas in the United States, as well as shipment and duty costs.

″But most of the time the American won’t buy it,″ Watanabe says with a smile.

Japanese, however, are a different story.

″I come here often. I have bought a road sign that I hang in my home and small items like forks and knives,″ said Junichi Yamamoto, a 23-year-old architect clad in a leather jacket. ″I usually spend about 10,000 yen ($75) on each visit.″

Those who studied in the United States are drawn to the functional dining tables and chairs that remind them of their younger days, he says.

There are also the mechanically inclined, who are thrilled to buy scrap motorcycle parts, and there are the rock ‘n’ roll freaks with greased-back hair for whom all the rubbish is high-class fashion.

″There are things here that are practically garbage,″ Watanabe admits. ″But we need to keep the space filled, and you’d be surprised at what gets bought.″

Watanabe says Japanese, who typically wouldn’t be caught dead wearing last year’s clothes, are awed by the unwillingness of Americans to throw anything away.

″It allows this to exist,″ he says, lifting a basket of discolored fake flowers.

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