LA's Time Travel Mart: Back to the future

"If nobody from the future shows up to stop you, how bad a decision can it really be?"

This sign is strange enough to give me pause as I stand on the sidewalk in Echo Park, north of Los Angeles' reviving Downtown area. 

Behind me, traffic rushes along Sunset Boulevard, lined on each side by nondescript shopfronts in this gritty, semi-gentrified neighbourhood. 

In front of me is a display window containing a life-sized mannequin of a caveman meeting a tinny-looking sci-fi robot, to the backdrop of mountains and a strange shimmering effect.

Welcome to the Time Travel Mart, LA's own supply store for a very specific clientele: time travellers. As no one suddenly materialises from the future to tell me not to enter, I step through its doors.

The interior is stacked with colourful items on tightly-packed shelves. With all of time and space to call upon for its stock, you'd expect it to be diverse – and it is. There's also a bonus serve of quirky humour.

The first shelf I inspect is devoted to robots, their care and maintenance. Cans of nanobots sell for $US8.99, their interiors apparently empty through their transparent lids. 

Next to them are Robot Emotion Chips, labelled Envy, Fear, Guilt, Love and Boredom – all bearing the catchy motto "Feel like a human". There are also robot toupees (made from steel wool), and a packaged Evil Robot Memory Eraser (actually a horseshoe magnet).

Not that it's all about robots. On one shelf are huge heavy cans allegedly containing chunks of the prehistoric woolly mammoth. The Beards 'n' Such board depicts facial hair throughout history, including such classics as the Matinee Idol (pencil moustache) and the Grand Vizier (flowing neckbeard). 

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There are togas inside jars, communist-era soap, Viking "odorant", and a wind-up music box labelled as a "Victorian iPod".

This is seriously amusing stuff, and it might even be handy to a chronologically displaced traveller. Either way, I'm impressed by the attention to detail. Rather than going the easy route of importing vaguely thematic novelty items, the shop has made a big effort to create unique stock.

May, the woman behind the counter, tells me the eccentric inventory is devised by volunteer designers. That's because the Time Travel Mart is actually a front for 826 LA, a non-profit organisation which helps local children improve their writing skills. 

An area behind the shopfront provides after-school tutoring, writing workshops, and assistance for English language learners. This much-valued service is helped along by revenue from the time travel supplies.

May says that locals respond well to the store and its wider purpose, though occasionally it's dismissed as "hipster" and therefore as an element of gentrification. As this largely Latino neighbourhood becomes infiltrated by new arrivals drawn to its location and grungy appeal, such tensions might be inevitable.

For me, however, the Time Travel Mart is a delight. As I continue browsing the vast good-humoured selection on its shelves (time travel sickness pills, jars of leeches, Dolly's anti-cloning fluid, chain-mail armour), I'm smiling my head off. 

What this store really sells is pure imagination.

The Time Travel Mart opens noon-6pm daily at 1714 W Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, timetravelmart.com.

Tim Richards was a guest of United Airlines and the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

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