The gnome sports electric lime-colored shorts, chunky hiking shoes, binoculars and a rifle. He is an explorer, transported from Germany’s Black Forest to Chicago’s Lincoln Square. Like the garden gnome in the movie “Amelie,” he is sent around the world, proving that travel is good. The hiker gnome retails for $59.90 at the German import store, possibly proving that commerce is good, too.
Christmas shoppers wander in to the European Import Center and peruse Hummel figurines, “Nutcracker” soldiers and dirndl-clad dolls. After examining the traditional cuckoo clocks, a young woman whispers to her friend, “I just don’t know if I should spend that much.” The chalet-style clocks are painstakingly handmade by Germans who have an actual craft: clockmaker, woodcarver.
The shop’s thirty-five assorted gnomes are also handcrafted in Germany, but of molded plastic, not forest wood. Wide-eyed and red-capped, they blow alpine horns as seen in Ricola commercials, grasp barrels, push wheelbarrows, proffer red roses or play musical instruments. A gnome mounted on a pig swings his arm in the air. Like John Travolta riding the mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy,” he refuses to get bucked off. Meanwhile, an older customer tells a bespectacled clerk, “…and then I slipped and landed on my chest.” The saleswoman shakes her head sympathetically over the tale of winter weather hazards. Not a hair from her bowl haircut falls out of place as she rings up the sale and calls out “Auf Wiedersehen” to the woman of unsteady footing.
A tall shaggy-haired man ducks inside with a bundled-up woman. They kiss near the rack of German-language publications. In a window opposite the couple, Gustav Klimt’s geometric artwork decorates the glassware. “Der Kuss” (“The Kiss”), a painting of gold and tan squares surrounding a man and woman kissing, is reproduced in most of the display pieces: crystal stemware, a serving dish, a cubic candle holder.
On a tall case above the real-life kissing couple, Snow White towers over her Seven Dwarfs like the Amazon Woman. On the carpeted floor below, Rudi, the largest gnome in the store and obviously not one of the dwarfs, lazily clutches a pipe and clasps a protruding belly engulfed in a chestnut-colored apron. He is the size of a 4-year-old boy—the perfect Christmas gift for a lad who has everything but a pricey life-sized plastic gnome that smokes.
The unsure cuckoo-clock woman leaves the store empty-handed, brushing by Rudi and the German magazines, gossip rags that broadcast the joys and sins of German celebrities. Perhaps Boris Becker has another deep secret, an untold desire, a coveted occupation—gnome-maker. (Sarah Klose)