The ECHO PARK TIME TRAVEL MART
In September of 2006 I received a note from writer Mac Barnett, then the executive director of 826LA, about helping him with a project. He was opening a convenience store for time travelers. “I’m wondering whether you’d be at all interested in doing a little design for us. A couple product lines, maybe? I should tell you up front that the work would have to be pro bono, but that it’s also fun, rewarding, exciting, for a good cause, etc.” Of course I said yes. Absolutely! Who’d ever say no to designing a Time Travel Store? Could anything have been more up my alley?
826 is a national organization of tutoring centers dedicated to supporting students 6—18 with their writing skills, and to helping teachers get their students excited about the literary arts. Founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco, the first location on 826 Valencia Street was zoned for retail use, not for a tutoring center. So Dave opened the Pirate Supply Store—with a big back room where students can get help with their writing. All proceeds from store sales fund the center. Problem solved.
Over the years, new locations opened all over the country, each with a store in the front and a tutoring center in the back. Brooklyn has the Super Hero Supply Co., Seattle has the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, Chicago has the Boring Store (a store dedicated to drill bits, which disguises a spy store, which hides a tutoring center). When it came time to start a tutoring center in Los Angeles, Mac Barnett decided to create the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. Sam Potts, who designed the Superhero Supply Co., recommended that Mac get in touch with me for the design. This was doubly flattering as I’d never met Sam. I still haven’t, but at least now we exchange e-mails every now and again. (If you have a chance to see his store, do! It’s amazing!)
My one condition for signing on was this: I’d do the job, as long as I’d be the exclusive designer for the project. I freely admit that I’m a glory hound. I wanted design dominion over that store. When I show a project, people usually ask, “So, what part did you do?” and nothing is more fun than being able to say, “All of it.”
If you’re in Los Angeles, this is the store you’re looking for: 1714 W. Sunset Blvd.
Of course, everything in the original store is built on the brilliant copy by Mac Barnett and his writing partner Jon Korn. As they conceived it, the store is a one-stop shop for time travelers—a convenience store in the vein of a 7-Eleven or an am/pm. Here you can stock up on everything from time machine fuel to mammoth stew to robot emotion chips to medieval armor. Each product is packaged with a brief description, detailed instructions, and temporal restrictions where applicable. Everything about the store is entirely straight-faced. All products are exactly what they proclaim to be. If you ask a staff member what’s actually in the bottle of robot milk, they’ll tell you: robot milk.
Delicious, nutritious, and one of the first uses of the typeface Homerun Script by my friend Doyald Young.
The first product I ever designed for the store were Leeches, natures tiny doctors.
When I got involved, Mac said that the store would open within two months—in December 2006—and if I could just blitz through a few designs for them. Ha! I already knew from my work for AIGA Los Angeles that volunteer based organizations operate differently from commercial clients, and so it was here, too. In the end, it took us a year to open the doors. But this worked in my favor. I had seen the designs for the Pirate and Superhero stores, both of which have (beautiful) store brands. Design templates let writers play, and allow the staff to turn text into shelf-ready products very quickly. When I started looking into what makes a convenience store read as a convenience store it led us down a different path: It’s the multitude of completely different package designs crammed into a small space that make a proper Kwik-E Mart. I’d have to design dozens of different brands to pull this off.
A look inside the shop. Amy Martin designed the travel posters on the counter, store architect R. Scott Mitchell vacuum-formed the ceiling tiles especially for this location.
Our news ticker. One day those wires will be hidden, but even among time travelers nobody can tell me when.
Our very own slushee machine. It exploded minutes before the grand opening and never worked again.
Under normal circumstances you’d approach a packaging design by looking at what everybody in your market segment is doing, and then trying to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as possible. In this case, it was the exact opposite. For the jokes to work, my designs had to serve as the straight man. I had to look at the category we were parodying, and mimic it as closely as possible. As the customer, you have to look at a can from a distance and think, “Right. That’s stew.” Only when you start reading should you realize that it’s Mammoth Stew, and only then should you notice the very particular nutritional information label and the stovetop directions.
Warning: May contain up to 30% Mastodon meat. I later found out that the band bought a bunch of cans.
Everybody’s favorite snake oil salesman: Professor Cluttterbuck. Collect all flavors.
I found that horse in one of my old sketchbooks. If you live in Hannover, Germany you can find it—in bronze—right underneath King Ernst August outside the central train station.
As the store became more established, and I got busy with the Daily Monsters and my books, I took more of a creative director role at the store, designing an occasional poster and giving advice to incoming design volunteers. The most difficult thing to get across to them—without destroying their enthusiasm—is that this job requires serious design. The jokes simply don’t work unless you treat each product with the same dedication to quality as you would any commercial assignment. That’s usually when people drop out and don’t come back. But the few who’ve stayed have done some wonderful work that now lines the shelves along with the original products I put together with Mac and Jon.
You can’t travel through time without the proper papers.
Also available: Agriculture, Perspective, and Zero. Please note the Roxio logo in the flames.
Inexpclicably, Viking Odorant is one of our biggest sellers. I strongly dislike toes, so I really took one for the team researching the background images.
Colonialism—still funny after all these years. Particularly with the right clip art.
A few of the labels from a series of vials containing famous last words, written by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker of “Thrilling Adventure Hour” fame.
If you find yourself in Los Angeles, please drop by. You can find the store at 1714 W. Sunset Blvd, in Echo Park. You can also order products online at timetravelmart.com (which I also designed, with excellent programming by Megan Woo.) In either case, please note that the store sells time travel supplies, but makes it a point not to sell time machines. You can ask if they carry flux capacitors, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Echo Park Time Travel Mart website. It took years, but it was worth it.
The poster for “HORSE” is modeled on Ed Fella’s 1980 Chevy Camaro brochure, which I featured prominently in the pages of All Access. The twins were photographed by Jona Frank.
With over 8 Trillion sold since 2015, Chubble is the hottest product of the near future. And the most confusing to present time customers. Sold in a sealed black box, Chubble is available in 35 great… flavors? Models? Calibers? Who can say? You may not want one now, but you will soon!
Robot emotions are another future favorite! Also available: Love, Rage, Fear, Guilt, and Envy.
Speaking of robots, why not protect yourself against those on a rampage with TK Brand Anti-Robot Fluid? Caution: Does not work on plastic robots.
One of a series of “5 Minutes Ago” products (co-written by J. Ryan Stradal) allowing you to travel five minutes back in time with the tools you will have needed. This may be the single most useful product for every day time travel use, and it’s available for a wide range of situations.
The Mystery Bag is a good deal, and one of my favorite labels. As is the general bag, which is one I also wrote.