Discoveries: Buying time at a storefront nonprofit

Sometimes – no, often – I ask stupid questions.

Are you surprised?

See, another stupid question.

My latest cringe-inducing query came shortly after I set foot into a store called the Time Travel Mart in this metropolis’ über-trendy Echo Park neighborhood and asked the clerk, with all credulity, “How long ya been here?”

He smirked.

“Since the dawn of time,” he said.

Duh. Well, of course. What part of the whole time-travel, malleable past-future thing didn’t I get?

The clerk, a pleasant-looking chap named Wilson Swain, looked at me as if I were directly related to the thick-browed, pea-brained caveman mannequin shaking hands next to the futuristic robot in the front display window and apparently took pity on me. He deigned to elaborate.

“OK, officially, on the books, I think the Time Travel Mart’s been here since 2005,” he said.

As a “front” for a rather nefarious operation – a tutoring space for kids, hidden deep in the recesses of the building, owned by the Dave Eggers-created 826 National nonprofit – the Time Travel Mart aims to be a literal trip. The all-caps slogan out front on Sunset Boulevard says it all: “WHENEVER YOU ARE, WE’RE ALREADY THEN.”

The conceit is that, since we all can freely travel backward or forward through many an epoch, we will need provisions for the journey. Hence, the shelves of the mini-mart are lined with items such necessities as TK Brand Time Travel Sickness Pills (“Active Ingredient: Relativoran”), robot emotion chips (“Guilt,” “Schadenfreude”) and bottled dead languages (Coptic, Sanskrit). In the dairy case are dinosaur eggs and robot milk (the latter of which looks like finely grained silicone in a bottle).

If it seems more altruistic performance art installation than commercial enterprise, that’s precisely the point. Proceeds from the items sold benefit the tutoring services at the Los Angeles branch of 826, which Eggers launched in San Francisco’s Mission District on 826 Valencia St. shortly after his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” became a mega-best-seller and he became a literary lion by starting his own imprint, McSweeney’s.

Now, I had known for a while about the Mission District tutoring program and the quirky-themed Pirate Store that opened in 2002. But I had no idea that it had become something of a do-gooder franchise in several cities, sort of the McDonald’s of childhood literacy, sans high fat content.

Each tutoring space has a wacky storefront attached. In L.A., it’s time travel in two sites (Echo Park and Mar Vista). In Boston, it’s the Bigfoot Research Institute; in Chicago, The Boring Store; in New York, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.; in Ann Arbor, Mich., Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair. You get the idea. It’s in eight cities and growing.

Now, depending on how you feel about Eggers and his literary minions, you either think the stores are witty, fun and charmingly sardonic, or overly precious and too hip by half.

Me? I fall squarely into the charming camp. Stuffy critics may dismiss Eggers as the hipsters’ poster boy, but his earnestness and good heart in teaching underprivileged teens writing skills belies that reputation.

It turns out, the themed-storefront concept was just a happy accident when the organization was renovating the former gym on Valencia Street that became the first tutoring center, according to Gerald Richards, CEO of 826National.

“We had to follow zoning laws,” he said. “The space where we built the tutoring center was zoned for retail, so that was a problem. The idea after we gutted it – it was an old gym and it had all this old wood inside that looked like the inside of a ship – was that we should sell pirate supplies. It was like, let’s stick it to The Man. If we had to sell something to open (the tutoring space), let’s sell pirate supplies.”

How could you not root for a CEO who talks of “sticking it to The Man”? In any event, the 826 folks started selling eye patches, peg legs, planks on which to walk and custom novelty products such as Can of Blood, Mermaid Bait or Repellent and Glass Eye Drops in the dimly lit galleon with dirgelike organ music wafting. It caught on, bringing a veritable booty of donations in sales for the program.

So, says Richards, when 826 decided to go national, it adopted a quirky-storefront notion to all venues.

“I think they’ve gotten progressively (weirder) as we’ve gone on,” Richards said, referring to the stores. “But it helps. The funds from the stores go right back into the tutoring center, but the store actually serves as a gateway to the community. It lets people look in there and wonder what’s this weird place, but then they see the kids back there working hard.

“It destigmatizes it for the kids, too. Because, you know, the kids walk through the space, and it disguises that they have to go to a tutoring center. They can say, ‘I’m going to the pirate store, the superhero store,’ not ‘I’m going tutoring.’”

At the Time Travel Mart one recent afternoon, I peered through the portal-sized window to see several teens with heads bowed over books. But I spent considerably more time marveling at the array of time-travel kitsch on display.

Obviously, someone put in a lot of effort to capture the realism in these faux products. Many are just one-off jokes, such as a product in a can called “5 Minutes Ago The Correct Answer,” yours for only $4.99. The label’s instructions: “Go back five minutes, give the correct answer, enjoy altered timeline.” Married men might enjoy the can titled “That Looks Great on You,” and those food-poisoning sufferers might want to purchase “Thank you, but I’m not really big on shellfish.”

Do people really buy these gag gifts?

“You’d be surprised,” said Diana Molleda, the organization’s design manager. “People are always asking for blank VHS tapes, retro things like that. Seriously, they want to buy them, and we absolutely have them right over there on that shelf. Cassettes and eight tracks, too. Our time-travel passports are always popular buys. Around Halloween, our disguises sell well: beards, hats, time travel helmets.”

Swain says he sometimes gets curious looks from the uninitiated. They see, for instance, what looks like a Slurpee machine at a 7-Eleven, but this one’s called “Time-Freezy Hyper Slush,” with two flavors: “Bubonic Blast” and “Primordial Ooze.” Alas, a hand-written sign taped to the nozzle reads, “Out of Order, Come Back Yesterday.” More than one customer has also reached into the doughnut case, apparently failing to see the sign: “Fresh ‘n Delicious ... in 1985!”

“A lot of people come in and say, ‘Uh, I just wanted a soda, man,’” Swain said. “This place stumps them.”

And, no doubt, elicits more than a few stupid questions.