Come See The Variety!

Once Upon A Dime
By: Luke Dittrich
Photography: Jonathan Hollada

I defy anyone to browse Richards Variety Store and come up empty. From shower curtains to Silly Putty, toilet plungers to Michael Jackson masks-something for everyone is crammed into the most interesting store in Atlanta.

Richards Variety Store was featured in the Atlanta Magazine in November 2002, Secrets of the City.
Kmarts don't have secrets. Or if they do, they're dark ones. Secrets about corporate malfeasance, perhaps. Or secret algorithms that determine what products will be slapped with a cop car's whirling blue light on what days. Secret treatises on why said whirling lights elicit such excitement from the ovine consumers trolling the long, lonely aisles.
Kmarts don't have good secrets. They don't have secrets that make you smile.
Richards Variety Store is full of good secrets. Secrets that not only make you smile but perhaps help you understand why this store, located in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center for more than four decades, predicted by cynics for almost the same period of time to perish in the face of competition from the Kmarts of the world, continues to thrive. Secrets that help you understand why it is Kmart, in fact, that is limping toward an early grave, while Richards is maturing into a spry and avuncular old gentleman. One with lots of stories to tell.
For those who've never been inside, here's some of what you'll find there: shower curtains, fart machines, toilet plungers, glassware, silverware, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a big old mechanical horse, Silly Putty, deadbolts and Michael Jackson Masks. More than 20,000 items crammed into 7,000 square feet.

"I buy what's good," says Robert Klenberg, the store's owner. "I sell what sells."
Klenberg stands too close and talks too fast and is, perhaps, just a bit unhinged. But he knows what's good and he knows what sells. And Richards is his obsession, his passion, the recipient of a good chunk of his life's energy. In an essay like this I might be expected to say that Richards is Klenberg's "baby," as though he'd long ago mated with some fecund retail establishment. That's not really accurate. More to the point, Klenberg was once Richards' baby.
"My grandfather, father and uncle opened the store in 1958, when I was four,” he says, “but they didn’t put me to work till I was five.”
The little boy is a 48-year-old man now, and one of his store’s secrets is that it has been stocking some of the same items since his teens. And I mean just that. Literally the same items. Along with his determination to buy what sells, Klenberg has another fundamental ambition, a complementary one. He sells what he buys. Even if it takes decades.
He walks me to a back wall and points out a small plastic bag filled with curtain rod support brackets. His father purchased a box full of these sometime around the Summer of Love, and he hasn’t sold out of them yet. The label stapled to each bag has it’s price emblazoned on it: 10 cents. Cheap in the ‘60s, a steal today.

Richards Variety Store was featured in the Atlanta Magazine in November 2002, Secrets of the City. This is his store, and people who offer advice on how to run it are turned away with a gentle rebuff. (My advice: Why don’t you stock some classic children’s movies along with your classic children’s books? His response: I’ve thought about it; it’s not a good idea.)
Those who go as far as to criticize his decisions are turned away with a less gentle retort. In a file in his office, he keeps a stack of the letter written over the years to complain about him. Most often they deal with his response to people who’ve questioned the appropriateness of this or that item of merchandise. In one, a woman recounts how when she took issue with Klenberg’s selection of sometimes racy greeting cards, he told her that if they bothered her she needed to see a psychiatrist. Klenberg tells me that he’d probably overreacted, but that, really, she’d overrated too. “The cards aren’t even that extreme. I mean, I make a rule never to stock any that use the f-word. Well maybe there’s one, but that’s only because it’s really funny.”
The walls of his office are covered with newspaper print reproductions of famous paintings clipped from the art section of The New York Times. I point to a faded Van Gogh self-portrait, and ask him if he considers himself artistic, if the store he oversees, this living dinosaur, is a work of art.
Yes, he tells me, then pauses to reconsider his response. “My wife disagrees. She looks at an upscale furniture store and says it looks like an artist created it. She says that I’m more of an engineer than an artist. I’m a genius at cramming all this stuff into so little space.”

An open secret: Richards has something for everyone. I defy anyone to walk in and walk out without craving some item within. On my first trip to Richards, I noticed a Jesus Christ action figure; I thought it would make a good gift for some lapsed Catholic or perturbed Presbyterian, but it really had no appeal to me, and I came to the melancholy realization I’d probably grown out of action figures for good.
Then, near the top of a wall of G.I. Joes, I found a foot-tall, fatigue-clad Ernie Pyle doppelganger. It even came with a tiny replica of a Remington typewriter. It was the first journalist action figure I’d ever seen. Note to friends: It’s no secret Christmas is approaching.

Read more about Richards Variety Store!