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Past Perfect

New York's memorabilia shops have just the right thing to light the corners of your mind.

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The millennial countdown has begun, and you can already smell the nostalgia kicking in. For those who find the virtual auctions of eBay confusing and a bit dubious (some of us still have problems with sending checks to people we don't know in places we've never been for items we haven't seen), here's where to rediscover the tokens of our receding century, cruising around town instead of the Internet. Whether it's a signed copy of Leaves of Grass, a putter used by Arnold Palmer, or a still of Rita Hayworth doing that hair thing in Gilda you crave, any number of New Yorkers will be more than happy to put you in touch with that favorite artifact -- for a price, of course.

That's Entertainment

Most movie-memorabilia shops resemble that warehouse in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- impenetrable mazes of ephemera that are imposingly vast. Not so the user-friendly Cinema Paradiso (162 Bleecker Street; 677-8215), which is accessible to both hard-core cineast and stroll-in pop-culture vulture. What you'll find there are thousands of "original reprints" and folios of everybody's favorite screen king or queen, as well as a staggering collection of posters, priced from $80 to $6,000. Granted, many are in Italian, which can be cool for Il Godfather or 8 1/2 but perplexingly laughable in the cases of Fort Apache the Bronx (Bronx 41 Distretto Polizia), or The Empire Strikes Back (La continua la saga di "Guerre Stellari").

With more than 10,000 posters, Chisholm Larsson Gallery (145 Eighth Avenue, near 17th Street; 741-1703) proudly claims to be the mother lode of original cinema posters and prints. Robert Chisholm and partner Lars Larsson each explain the popularity of their high-end collection of nearly 4,000 Polish and Russian film posters -- in which not only were the titles translated but the graphics of most Western releases were redesigned. "These offer an entirely unique visual perspective," assures Chisholm. Larsson nods, raising his eyebrows and lowering his chin in a manner startlingly reminiscent of Mike Myers's German avant-garder Dieter. They also have richly colored folios of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes releases from the fifties starring Il Gatto Silvestro. Apparently, these are quite a find: Larsson leans across the counter, his manner both conspiratorial and ominous. "Very collectible," he intones.

At Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store (242 West 14th Street; 989-0869), domestic movie memorabilia abounds. "There's no way to count how many images I have, exactly," Ohlinger says, an immobile cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. "But probably about 1 million." Black-and-white stills are $4, those in color are $5.50, and posters range from $15 to several thousand dollars. Ohlinger says he appreciates the items of his colossal and eclectic archives equally: "They're like children," he explains: "You have to love them all."

Don't Know Much About History

"We never stop buying," says co-owner Naomi Hample, who has worked at Argosy Books (116 East 59th Street; 753-4455) for 42 of the 72 years it's been in business. In that period, she's helped fill two floors of the six-story bookshop with autographed nineteenth- and twentieth-century political cartoons, historical documents, letters, prints, photographs, and newspapers. "But we stay in the world of paper." A little while back, Argosy sold the document that drew up the boundaries of Washington, D.C., signed by Thomas Jefferson when he was secretary of State. "I'd rather not say how much we sold it for, but it was clearly above the $25-to-$100 range that we tend to keep in," she says, giggling.

Writers on the Block

The oft-overlooked stepsister of the Strand Book family, the Strand Rare Book Room (828 Broadway, at 12th Street; 473-1452) can be found on the third floor of Strand Books. A source for both dealers and private collectors, the surprisingly uncrowded Rare Book Room has a broad selection of both nineteenth-century and modern American first editions at yesterday's prices -- books begin at a reasonable $10. Even better, signed first editions by emerging contemporary writers often run less than list price. Currently for sale: a first edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn ($5,000), David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, signed ($60), and the ABC for Book Collectors ($9.95). "It's almost like a treasure hunt," said third-generation Strand bookseller Nancy Bass.

It makes sense that the Gotham Book Mart & Gallery (41 West 47th Street; 719-4448), a bookstore renowned for the authors it supported, would specialize in those same writers' archives. Gotham's rare-book room handles first editions as well as manuscripts and letters of everyone from southern-gothic Tennessee Williams to Franco-Celtic Samuel Beckett, with the occasional Updike thrown in for good measure. Prices range from $500 for a first American edition of Ulysses to $20,000 for a signed first edition of William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses.

The Sporting Life

There are basically two schools of thought among sports collectors: "Buy everything" and "Buy big." In the former category, Alex's MVP Cards & Comics (256 East 89th Street; 831-card) covers every major professional sport. Alex Gregg and his small staff have assembled a solid collection of trading cards and other sports collectibles at reasonable prices, allowing young fans to enjoy what's otherwise a grown-up's game. Prices for packs of cards run from $1.50 to $7. Alex's also sells harder-to-find cards, such as a Willis Reed '71 Knicks ($15), a Jack Kemp '62 Buffalo Bills ($150), and a Frank Gifford '58 New York Giants ($55). Hey, where else can you find pictures of public figures in funny clothes?

If you count yourself in the "Buy big" camp and have a couple of thou burning a hole in your pocket, the first place to look for marquee sports moments is Gotta Have It! (153 East 57th Street; 750-7900). Down the block from Chanel, the Four Seasons Hotel, and Oxxford Clothes, Peter Siegel keeps his immaculate collection of sports memorabilia (he also has entertainment artifacts in stock, should anyone want Jimi Hendrix's guitar, for instance). What sets Gotta Have It! apart from so many other memorabilia shops is the rigorous process he employs to determine an item's pedigree. "I've got a team of five researchers who work to make sure that everything I sell is authentic," Siegel boasts, "and to this day, I've never had anyone return something because it wasn't real." In addition to their authenticity, all uniforms and jerseys were actually worn in games or practice sessions by the athletes themselves (as opposed to signed items that are simply the result of an eight-hour session with a marker and a crateload of merchandise). Siegel's expert eye spots items that are just a little more special than the rest -- a Mickey Mantle baseball bat is a rare thing, but one that Mantle used as a rookie (before his signature was branded onto the ash) is rarer still. Recently sold items include Joe Namath's shoes from Super Bowl III, which went for $25,000, and Michael Jordan's rookie jersey, which sold for $60,000 (another of his game-worn jerseys is only a mere $25,000). More-modest mementos are also available -- a signed Derek Jeter baseball is just $200, and a seat saved from Ebbets Field is $2,750. But don't put off that decision too long. Sighs Siegel: "I've had guys cry in the store when I tell them, 'It's gone.' "


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