Anyone who has stepped foot into the sprawling conglomeration of discounted electronic doodads and misfit thingamajigs that make up American Science and Surplus can tell you it is one of the city's strangest and most fantastic destinations.
The quirky store at 6901 W. Oklahoma Ave. known for its strange collection of toys, army surplus, household tools and goods, art supplies and nearly anything else you can think of, got its start in Chicago almost 75 years ago.
The founder, Al Luebbers, was working for Western Electric and was able to salvage rejected lenses from a neighboring optics plant. The company expanded following WWII, fueled by the boom in military surplus and established a brick and mortar space and later launched a mail-order catalog before opening the Milwaukee store -- the largest of three locations -- in 1981.
While a large portion of the store is dedicated to toys and children's arts and crafts, making it a great destination for families, its snarky price tags and bizarre stock make it tailor-made for the adult shopper with a keen sense of humor and imagination, says store manager Kim Stenglein.
"We sell a lot of motors and components and mechanical items for people who at Halloween time want to make a coffin lid lift up and down or at Christmas time who want to make a Santa who looks like he's laughing and things like that," Stenglein said about the adult shoppers who frequent the store.
"It's a lot of people trying to create their own devices so they don't have to buy them pre-made and to save a lot of money."
And then there are the customers whose projects are a little more off-beat.
"We get a lot of people who don't tell us what they are doing. Either it's top secret because they are going to patent it or a lot of times maybe they are embarrassed to tell us. A lot of people who are trying to shield themselves from aliens and stuff," Stenglein said.
Even if you've never encountered an E.T. there are plenty of reasons why it's absolutely OK for adults to hang out at American Science and Surplus. Here are a few items we found there during a recent visit that are made for grown ups.
Dutch rubberized bag
The store's military surplus aisle gets a strange selection of items from military organizations across the world. It's a section that is especially good for finding heavy duty packs and containers like this rubberized bag from the Netherlands, which would be great for camping treks or protecting electronics at the beach.
Cost: 50 cents
Sure the XO Brandy insignia might make this a tacky choice for entertaining, but if you are going for function over form you can't beat the price.
Cost: 60 cents
At about half the cost of what you'd pay at Walgreens, it's hard to turn down a legal pad. Sure it may be the most boring item in the whole store, but also the most functional. Cheap paper and office goods are plentiful at the store.
Pill case twin-pack
If you spend a lot of time at the doctor's office, or your friends call you Dr. Feelgood, this pill box could certainly come in handy. I'm not sure why it comes with two, but if you are popping a lot of pills chances are you are misplacing a lot of things.
Side Rax vehicle rack
It's easy to imagine the Side Rax being thrown in with a set of Ginsu knives during a late night infomercial. American Science and Surplus is crawling with offbeat, antiquated and sometimes stupid inventions that never quite caught on. If you frequently find yourself trying to haul lumber or long pipes in your Nissan Sentra then the Side Rax might be for you.
Cost: $1 per pound
If you have a lot of time on your hands and don't mind sorting through various nuts and bolts for hours on end, then the loose hardware bin could be for you. The store also has a large assortment of cheap tools for sale that require less sorting for the DIY home improvement set.
French toast syrup cups
Cost: 40 cents
If you are the type to use some medical grade beakers as ice tea glasses, or think you can't live without a Periodic Table of the Elements place mat, you can do a lot to craft a one-of-a-kind kitchen set-up here. Seemingly useless things like these tiny glass cups could come in handy for the imaginative cook.