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Zit curses,teak statues, and Chinese shoes

A trip to a former Deadhead's Columbia import store makes for an adventurous day trip

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Arnie Fagan is a grown-up's Willy Wonka.

Half eccentric nomad and half marketing guru, he lords over Cool Stuff, his import store in Columbia, Mo., like some zany king from a fairy tale. He calls himself "El Presidente." Everybody knows him. When he sits on a bench outside his store -- the "store to explore" -- on a warm, sunny day, he can't even utter a full sentence without getting cut off.

"Hey!" shouts a bearded guy with long, wild hair and a tie-dye shirt, swooping in to shake Fagan's hand. "He who has the biggest hat wins! You win!" Fagan beams from under the brim of an impossibly tall, fuzzy black hat with glitter swirls on it. He flashes lots of white teeth and dimples. He is delighted.

"Whooooaaaa!" rasps a pale-faced twentysomething whose eyes are smudged with day-old black kohl. "What's up with the hat? It's huge!" With a throaty chuckle, she plops down next to Fagan to chat for a few seconds before hurrying off down the street.

The hat is the least of it. Fagan is wearing a bright purple suit dyed in Nigeria. (A special technique using beans tied into the fabric created small white circles all over the outfit.) Every few seconds, he reaches out to catch a soap bubble. The bubbles are his too, generated by the hot-air-powered bubble machine built into the storefront above the purple, yellow, and green letters that spell "C-O-O-L S-T-U-F-F." A handmade sign on the front door of the store says, "Please don't feed the employees." Another boasts, "Yes! We have Chinese shoes."

Fagan loves to talk about his obsession with "large, weird things," his fascination with other cultures, and his desire to spread awareness of the world to Midwestern shoppers. He does this with Egyptian papyrus, colorful elephant-shape candles from China, Israeli glass dreidels, loincloths from Africa, Buddhist prayer wheels, and scads of sterling silver jewelry.

"I really take a world view," Fagan says, waxing philosophical. "It's because I travel. I mean, you meet people in a little village in Africa and you're standing on a foot and a half of solid dried dung in a Massai village, and these people are the same as we are. I mean, yeah, they've got flies all over them, but basically we're all the same. It's the same needs, wants ... and that's what the store is about. It's bridging the cultural gap ... and having fun while doing it."

To that end, Cool Stuff boasts a plethora of international goodies. It's a playground for people who love to shop or browse or wish they could take two monthlong trips a year to such places as Thailand, India, China, Hong Kong, Kenya, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela.

A 34-year-old ex-Deadhead from Chicago who lived in a two-door Cutlass for six months, Fagan can't resist a Dead reference. He smirks and mumbles under his breath, "What a long, strange trip it's been." That trip has been packed with odd, wonderful moments. Fagan has driven rickshaws in India, bestowed a toy upon a little street girl who was selling roses by a river in China, taken a traditional bath with an entire village in a stream in Bali, gone on a safari in Kenya, and gotten drunk in a tiki bar in Thailand.

Fagan brings back a little piece of every place he visits. His store offers items in every price range. At the store's entrance, two 9-foot-tall teak statues from Java stand guard, staring down with menacing scowls that feature genuine boars' teeth. Their ratty hair is made of shredded coconut husks, and Fagan says they were created by royal carvers in Indonesia. "It takes a special home for these," Fagan says, peering up at one of the threatening faces. "I tell people they ward off evil spirits." The price tag for each: $3,000.

If that's too expensive, a giant gong from Java goes for $1,500, and a heavy carved grainery door from Africa is $650. Those who want to spend only double-digit-type cash have plenty of options -- bright cotton tank tops and dresses from India, thousands of varieties of beads, 14,000 sterling silver rings, candles and candleholders, incense in scents such as "Poison" and "Dragon's Blood" and "Hawaiian White Ginger," home brewing equipment for beer and wine, and a variety of weird toys. There's the wind-up Nunzilla, an evil plastic nun, for $3.88; a voodoo doll that allows you to place the curse of "zits" or a "lost job" on your enemies for $5.88; and Toko the Absurd Bird puppet for $6.88.

Fagan, who loves to run around the store playing with the merchandise, doesn't rely on the items' novelty to lure customers. He takes out news article-style ads that detail his own made-up adventures. "Cool Stuff Owner Arrested," proclaims one ad, and "Cool Stuff Owner: Nice Guy or Mobster?" another. The ads always feature an outrageous mug of Fagan in one getup or another.

The ads and word of mouth bring in a lot of browsers -- several hundred each day. Shoppers can, and do, spend hours perusing the shelves. "We provide entertainment. We provide fun," Fagan says. "We provide something to do."

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