Bleisure: Quirky Alabama shop lures visitors for hours

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Elvis is in the bathroom and a big plastic Santa Claus looms over a bug-eyed alien at a quirky store that's a black hole of kitsch for visitors in downtown Birmingham.

Known for an eclectic collection of 20th century items, What's on 2nd has become a favorite of residents and visitors alike since it opened eight years ago. The store is a great, time-sucking stop for business travelers with a couple of hours — or an entire day — to kill.

The restroom is packed with Elvis Presley memorabilia — all for sale — and a witch shares shelf space with a giant Virgin Mary decoration in the holiday department upstairs. A toy Darth Vader stands sentinel beside a poster from the 1960s musical "Hair."

Stuff is everywhere, from floor to ceiling. A metal toy helicopter here, Star Trek action figures there.

Scattered about in seemingly random order are cowboy-sized belt buckles, a small portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt, jazz-era photos, vintage tools, vinyl record albums, clothing and baseball cards.

Co-owners Steve Gilmer and Ian Philips don't know how many items are in their inventory — hundreds of thousands is a good guess. But they do have a general theme, and it's evident as soon as a shopper walks through the squeaky front door under the gaze of a rubbery alien in the front window.

"Steve has a saying: 'If it's tacky, tasteless or irreverent, we probably like it,'" said Philips.

Sort of like that armless mannequin wearing polka-dot boxer shorts.

Located in a nearly 100-year-old building that's been everything from pawn shop to a frame store, What's on 2nd is an anchor in a downtown that has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Restaurants, bistros, night spots, offices and apartments line streets that were virtually abandoned after 5 p.m. a decade ago.

Gilmer opened the shop with a partner in 2007 and Philips joined the operation about four years ago. As more business people and tourists filled downtown streets, What's on 2nd gained a reputation as a popular stop for visitors.

"A lot of the local hotels are familiar with us so they send a lot of people our way," said Philips. "We've had people from Australia, Austria, New Zealand, London. We've had France, Belgium, Germany. And that's probably within the last six months."

The store is a favorite haunt of friends Lana Whisenant and Jenn Horton, locals who started browsing on the ground floor, worked their way past the mezzanine and wound up on the top floor amid clothes, photos, books — just name it.

"You can literally spend at least three hours, three or four hours," Whisenant said with a sheepish laugh. "All day. We've spent all day."

"The problem is deciding what you're not going to buy," said Horton.

Odd as it may seem, visitors shouldn't miss the unisex restroom tucked under the creaky stairs. Gilmer turned into a shrine to the King of Rock and Roll without even realizing the location was entirely appropriate, since Elvis died in the bathroom at his Graceland mansion.

"We had bought an Elvis collection at one time and I was kind of at a loss with what to do with it, and I decided I would decorate the bathroom," said Gilmer. "I mean, this is a retail space as well."


If You Go...

WHAT'S ON 2ND: 2306 2nd Ave. North, Birmingham, Alabama.