At The Gizmo Gourmet

At last.

A solar-powered, fan-cooled safari helmet ($59). An electronic flea collar ($59). A pocket stock market ticker-tape machine ($399). A digital alcohol breathalyzer of your very own ($79).

Imagine pulling out your Wizard of Wine electronic wine steward ($39) in a fancy restaurant and computing which vintage to sip as you sup. Or getting a tan at your desk with a portable Amerec Tanning System ($499). Or flying a radio-controlled Heli-Star model helicopter up to 17,000 feet ($1,595; assembled, $2,195). Or having late-night drinks and a chat with your loyal Hearoid, “the brainy, inexpensive robot who comes one breathtaking step closer to humanity” ($399).

Now it can be sold — at The Sharper Image, a toy store for grown-ups, an electronic delicatessen.

It opened yesterday in the revitalized National Press Building, bringing the number of The Shops (and restaurants) at National Place to 85. The noontime inauguration of the second half of the new complex was heralded by a mini-parade featuring Mayor Marion Barry, a confetti cloudburst and the Cardozo and Dunbar high school marching bands blaring “The Glamorous Life.”

The Sharper Image is a high-tech heaven for those who find expression in possession, people who are living and buying — seen as synonymous by some — as if there will be no tomorrow. What could be more appropriate in these days when “That’s-cute-where’d-ya-get-it?” runs a close second to “What do you do?” as Washington’s most-used opening line?

The stock is the sort of stuff that gadgetmeister James Bond himself might covet. (In fact, Roger Moore uses a Sharper Image credit card to break into an apartment in the upcoming 007 movie, “A View to a Kill.” And Moore will be on the cover of the June catalogue). All 200 items could be called “useful.” None could be called “necessary.”

Some might be called “decadent.”

That’s a label Sharper Image founder Richard Thalheimer cheerfully acknowledges. He’s heard it before. He can afford to laugh.

“I’ll be the first to admit there are more important things than surrounding yourself with material objects,” he posits. “I’m catering to one side of life.”

Tanned, handsome, relaxed and excited at the same time, Thalheimer, 37, began the San Francisco-based business seven years ago with a single mail-order advertisement, selling an inexpensive copy of a Seiko digital chronograph. With one ad and one product, he boasts, he made a $300,000 profit the first year.

And thus The Sharper Image was born. The name, Thalheimer says, came from the not-so-long-ago days when he was selling office supplies and photocopiers door to door. Now, in addition to the booming mail-order catalogue business (some 30 million distributed each year), he has five retail stores, with a dozen more set to open by December.

The average sale is $165. Each store pulls in an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 a day in about 2,500 square feet. Last year, The Sharper Image netted $100 million in combined mail-order and retail sales.

“We try to sell what — I hate to use the term — what is commonly referred to as a ‘Yuppie Life Style,’ ” Thalheimer says unblushingly. “I’ve always thought of The Sharper Image customer as somebody exactly like me.”

The scion of a Little Rock, Ark., department store family, he says he “developed a toy fixation” working in the family trade and now has absolute control over all items chosen for the catalogue and stores.

“I always wanted a suit of armor as a young man,” says Thalheimer, tongue only slightly in cheek as he cheerfully poses with a replica of a Spanish suit of armor, circa 1500 ($3,500). “I always thought that it was the mark of a successful person to be rich enough to have a suit of armor in your office. So now I have one at home and one at my office.”

Next stop in Thalheimer’s career fantasy: “Developing vacation resorts where people will play with toys that are too expensive and too big to want to own. Like portable jet packs. And hot-air balloons and speedboats.”

And ultimately, of course, he’d like to produce movies.

Meanwhile, blinded by appliances, herds of confetti-covered, business-suited, Nautilus-sculpted Material Girls and Boys pushed (politely) into the store to exercise their purchase power. In the first hours, The Sharper Image, tastefully appointed in charcoal gray and red lacquer, saw hundreds of consumers with discretionary income to burn trembling in an intoxicated “I-should-have-it-all” frenzy. The sales staff, who have been trained to say “May I show you how to work that?” instead of “Hi, may I help you?,” glided coolly about, pushing buttons and answering questions.

Salesperson and admitted gizmoholic Mary Laurenzano seemed uniquely qualified, having previously worked at The Red Balloon, a toy store for children, as she patiently demonstrated the Getaway Chair ($1,320). A sort of Sitman, the ultimate La-Z-Boy, this chair has speakers built in to the headrest and unseen rollers that massage, knead and vibrate the body with an alarming enthusiasm.

“It’s ‘Fantasy Island,’ ” said Colleen Rainey to coworker Nadine Hartke. “You could come down here every day just to work out.” They had been lured into the store by the siren call of beeps and whirs and the sight of exercise machines scattered about like an invasion of metal insects.

Spec sheet on The Sharper Image Customer: Eighty percent male (though that’s quickly changing). Twenty to 30 years old. College educated. Average annual income, $125,000. Median annual income, $80,000.

There he is: Sitting in the AMF Exercise Bicycle ($695), raptly studying the current catalogue, it’s Spence Roman, a 32-year-old tax and financial planner. Sure enough, he wasn’t about to leave without buying something. Anything.

“I’ll definitely buy something today,” Roman said. “Probably the talking scale $129 . Then I’ll tell my friends about it. This way you can let everyone else know where they should go if they want to buy you gifts. My birthday is in June.”

In the end, he bypassed the $1,200 Nepalese vacation beamed on the high-definition video screen, overlooked the radio-controlled, 1/250th-scale super submarine with authentic three-channel superheterodyne digital proportional system ($179), ignored — for now — the $2,000 ultimate desk blotter and settled for the simple yet elegant Beep ‘n Keep electronic key chain ($19), which, if misplaced, beeps plaintively when you clap your hands.

At The Gizmo Gourmet


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