SAN FRANCISCO – The incongruity amazes and appalls in equal measure. Smack dab in the middle of Fisherman's Wharf, this city's bright and shiny tourist mecca, sits a shop that caters to our dark side, our suspicious minds and worst impulses.
So out of place is the International Spy Shop, with its monochrome James Bondian banner flapping in the onshore breeze, that upon entering you first think it's just another kitschy curio shop selling cheap metallic handcuffs and decoder rings.
Your suppositions are shattered in the time it takes to hum the first guitar riff of the Bond theme. What's being offered is nothing less than pricey, top-of-the-line surveillance equipment similar to that used by law enforcement agents and private detectives – you know, people paid and trained to employ them.
It's all here, peace of mind yours for a pretty penny: hidden microphones, wireless cameras, secret GPS trackers for cars, motion detectors, brass knuckles, doorknob alarms and the holy trinity of personal safety: Mace, stun guns and pepper spray.
High- or low-tech, there's something for everybody. Those just dabbling in espionage can pick up a disappearing-ink pen for $19.99 (much more elaborate than the kind baby boomers sent away for on the back of a cereal box). Those hard-core sleuths might want to opt for a 2.4 GHz wireless color CCD camera ($499.99) that records activities directly onto your computer.
Really serious, like, CIA serious? You can purchase a Tissue Box Camera, which, just as its name implies, hides a high-resolution color camera in a 6-inch box devoid of telltale pinholes or wires. It costs $849.99, tissues not included.
It is at this point in the story when I think I'm legally required to tsk-tsk such a store as a craven enterprise preying on people's fears and vulnerabilities and perpetuating an atmosphere of violence so detrimental to our society. So, consider it done.
But consider this, too: The store is also fascinating. It may plunge you into despair about the state of humanity, how we can't trust one another and think evildoers lurk in every shadow. But we live in a post- 9/11 world, one in which novelist David Foster Wallace snarkily asks: "The question is not if you're paranoid; it's if you're paranoid enough."
What's even more fascinating is its location in the heart of smiley, happy touristville. (Yes, I know there's a perfectly fine spy store in Sacramento, on Folsom Boulevard in a working-class area, but that's just where you expect a business such as this to be located. On Fisherman's Wharf? Not so much.)
I asked Max Dux, the store manager, why the spy store chose Fisherman's Wharf to relocate nine years ago (the business has been in several locations in the city during its 13 years). I figured the answer would be increased foot traffic, etc. I figured wrong.
"We were very visible over at the Metreon (shopping center in downtown San Francisco)," Dux said. "It was a business decision. There were products we wanted to sell that the Metreon had some objections to – stun guns, pepper spray."
Giving me the grand tour, Dux pointed to a locked glass cabinet displaying an array of cameras embedded in everything from eyeglasses to teddy bears.
"That's your traditional nanny cam," he said. "That's what people think of when they think nanny cam. But, basically, a nanny cam is any camera that's covert and motion-activated and ready to roll if something's happening in front of the lens."
Next up: rows of surveillance equipment, many using GPS to track, in Sting's refrain, every step you take, every move you make. Why would you need this?
"(It's) if employers want to know where employees go," he said, "or fathers who want to know where their sons are taking the car over the speed limit."
I gave a sardonic smile familiar to any father of a teenage son. Dux picked up on it and went into full sales mode.
"Sure, sure, you trust the kid," he said. "But at the same time, when there's a lot of mileage on your car, you wonder whether he went to Vegas for the weekend instead of over to his girlfriend's."
That can be a useful tool in a parental arsenal, if you want to go that cynical route. Moving on, I asked Dux about a $399 wristwatch with a built-in camera and digital voice recorder. To what ends would someone use that?
"I look at these things as being on the proactive side," Dux said. "If your employer's mistreating you, it'll catch it, and you take it to HR. You're visiting your spouse and maybe he's speaking abusively. Well, you've got this on tape. It puts (proof) in your hands, which is empowering."
Vast swaths of the store are devoted to catching cheating spouses. Items ranged from computer- monitoring chips to cellphone surveillance devices to something called the "Semen Spy" ($69.99), which "enables you to chemically identify even invisible traces of semen" on clothing or bedsheets.
Gosh, how depressing for an inveterate old romantic like me. Dux smiled sympathetically, as one would a naive cuckold.
"But it's so common," he said. "This is one of our biggest lines of sales. If people were more true to their vows, but, you know ."
All this sneaky subterfuge was starting to creep me out a bit.
"Yeah," Dux said, "but it's hard to understand where the creep factor comes in because we have plenty of things to protect you (from) the creeps. I'm sure we have some people buy this and use it for their own weird purposes, but at the same time we can protect you from them."
He showed me a $49 set of lock-picking tools. They are not, he maintains, only for the criminally inclined.
"That's a pretty innocent device," he said. "At 12 o'clock at night in a nice neighborhood, these are burglar tools. But when your son's broken the key off in his lock and this is the only way to get in, this is a really fantastic (tool) to have."
Given that these goods can be used for good or evil, I wondered whether Dux has ever refused to sell to unsavory looking types. He pointed to a sign over the cash register stating, "We have the right to refuse service to anyone."
Will that scare away bad guys?
"We're pretty much wide open sales," he admitted. "But if anyone comes in and talks offensively or with a purpose that makes you squirm, we won't sell. It's rare. Most people, if they're going to be creepy, are secretive about it."
They are budding spies, after all.
INTERNATIONAL SPY SHOP
555 Beach St., San Francisco
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Phone: (415) 775-4779