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The tall, red-brick building looms before me like something out of an old horror flick. Although it is a cloudless, stifling-hot afternoon, I imagine howling wind and a clap of thunder as a bolt of lightning rips through the darkening sky. I begin my ascent of the thick concrete steps to the bleak double doors. After receiving a visitor’s badge from the receptionist, I cross the marble lobby and stop in front of a wooden door marked Room 208. Taking a moment to notice the thick frosted glass, I turn the brass doorknob and step inside Skeletons in the Closet, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s . . . gift shop.
The warmth of the room — butter-yellow walls and big windows that let in lots of sunlight — is a surprising contrast to the morbidly themed merchandise (not to mention the business going on down the hall). Every wall is full of novelty T-shirts — some picturing a corpse’s foot, others printed with yellow block lettering that reads simply: CORONER. There are real toe tags for sale as key chains reminding people not to drink and drive, and my personal favorite — boxers, cleverly labeled “Undertakers.” The glow-in-the-dark body-outline chalk comes as a set with police tape and body markers; notepads read, “We’re dying for your business”; and educational books with posters and stickers take you inside the anatomy of the human body. And “everybody loves the beach towels,” says shop manager Edna Pereyda, who sits at her desk enthusiastically chatting with vendors or taking online orders at her computer. “We’re always selling out of the black ones,” she adds, pointing to the towels with the white chalk outline of a body stretched out on luxuriously thick terry cloth.
The shop, recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s Weird and Wild America, got its start when a secretary who worked at the coroner’s office made a gag gift for a doctor. The wacky souvenir inadvertently led to a demand for similar merchandise, and in 1993, the shop officially opened for business. Well, “shop” might be a little bit of a stretch: At first, Skeletons in the Closet was literally a closet, lined with shelves stocked with merchandise, at the end of a hallway. Back then, “open for business” just meant opening the closet door. Since the beginning, proceeds from the merchandise have gone to offset the costs of the Youthful Drunk Driving Visitation Program, which brings teens to the morgue to allow them a scared-straight look at the very real effects of drunk driving.
Although the existence of a gift shop in the coroner’s office surprises (and occasionally angers) many people, Skeletons in the Closet has received national media attention over the years and rakes in about $4,000 a week in Internet sales alone. “I remember there was one lady who came in that was actually picking up ‘property’ — I think it was her husband,” Pereyda says nonchalantly. “Her friend who was with her got really bothered. She was yelling at me, ‘How could you? How could you?’ ” Pereyda chuckles and adds that once the woman calmed down, she called her son to brag about where she was and ask him if he wanted a T-shirt.
1106 N. Mission Road, L.A., (323) 343-0760; Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. www.lacoroner.com.