Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Kings Store

Len Klein
Memory Sketch # 13
Friday, May 04, 2001

When I was but ten years old, every weekend I would walk from where I lived on Chester Street, near Sutter Avenue, to the Pitkin Avenue end of my block, then go north for about five or six blocks to the store of wonders, called Kings Toy Store. There in the window were two items that held my attention for almost an hour each trip. I always went alone because no one would stand with me for that long looking into a store window, and I was too shy to go in and ask the owner to show me what drew me to the store. I just looked and fantasized about owning the Gilbert Chemistry Set and the Gilbert Microscope Set.

Each came in its own wooden case, hinged so that it could open up twice as large as it was when closed, with places for small instruments and slides, measuring tools, test tubes and a mixing bowl. With each set there seemed to be an ample instruction book, and I could just imagine all the marvelous and mysterious things that could be done with them. I had been saving for what seemed to me to be forever; saving every cent I got. Slowly I was getting there, accumulating the money necessary for one of the sets. It was no easy matter to get the five dollars and fifty cents that was the price for each set. When I reached four dollars and seventy-five cents I realized that I would soon have to make a decision as to which set would be bought. I always believed that I would eventually buy both of them, but the dilemma was not easy to resolve; which set should come first? Several more weekend trips to Kings were to pass before I finally made up my mind.

The day came at last, when I walked self-consciously to Kings with all my savings in my pocket. I had decided, after careful deliberation, to buy the Chemistry Set. As my thoughts went over each possibility, I reasoned that the Chemistry Set would most likely provide the greater range of activity and learning, and it seemed the necessary first step to working with the microscope. I kept thinking about all the things I would do with it, and how I would wash my hands before using it, and take care to use it very gently.

When I entered the store, surely I must have been glowing, and I bet the man could see it too. At long last, I was inside Kings and I asked to see the Gilbert Chemistry Set. The man went to get it while I stood there and waited, feeling almost frightened. Then he was back and he put it on the counter right in front of me. On the lid of the wooden case there was a picture of a boy about my age doing wonderful things with the set. Excitedly, I said I was going to buy it and placed all my money on the counter. The man counted the two one dollar bills and all my coins; then he looked at me, and I knew something wasn’t right. He said, “I’m sorry, but you don’t have enough here.” I was stunned. How could that be? I had counted the money twenty times. The man said I needed sixteen cents more for the tax. I was so disappointed I could hardly speak; it was all I could do not to cry. With my head down, I left the store saying that I would be back very soon.

I did go back soon afterward and I did buy the Chemistry Set. Carrying it home, I had an unstoppable smile on my face all the way. When I showed it to Mom and Dad, with all its pieces, and the incredibly interesting instruction guide book, I felt so proud to finally have gotten it.

The first time I got to use it was Saturday night, when Mom and Dad went out for the evening and I was home watching Arnie and Linda. With Linda safely asleep, I placed the set on the kitchen table and opened it up; there it was, my very own laboratory. Arnie watched as, carefully following the instructions in the guide book, I did my first experiments. We were both in states of wide-eyed amazement. Which of them I actually did first, I no longer remember; there were so many experiments done over the following weeks and months. One time I did get into trouble though. It seems that the smell of burning sulfur left a most objectionable odor in the kitchen and when they came home my parents were very upset. My father even went so far as to threaten to throw the whole thing out, down the incinerator. Even though I was afraid of him really doing it, I countered with the idea that if he did, it would probably blow up and make a great fire in the building. I don’t know if he believed me, but he did not throw out my set.

Because of my chemistry experiments, the need to replenish my chemicals and to acquire new chemical compounds mentioned in the guide book, I came to know Mr. Brower, who’s pharmacy was on Sutter Avenue and Bristol Street, just around the corner from me. I could see that he really liked my coming in and talking to him about my experiments, and he was very helpful to me.

As for the Microscope, well, I never did get it, and, after a while, it disappeared from the Kings window, and there was always a disappointment that stayed with me about that. Many years later I actually bought Microscopes for Melanie and David, as if I could then vicariously experience what I had missed, but for them it had none of the fascination it had for me, and they just put it aside.

In Junior High School and High School my science courses were peppered with experiments that I had already read about and performed at home. It was great to have so much advance knowledge and made me feel more strongly about the relevance of my kitchen studies. It also led me to resolve to become a research biologist, but that was never to be.

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