THE GOOD HUMOR MAN

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Doug Hild and his wife, Brenda, in their store, Good Things. Their shop has survived five Wal-Marts being built within a 30-minute drive of their business.

Frank Capra couldn't dream it up much better than this.

There are projectile astronaut pens, gourmet chestnuts, gooey cockroach toys, and a parasailing snowman on the ceiling of a store called Good Things on an avenue called Main Street in a Pennsylvania town within short driving distance of five Wal-Marts.

The overstuffed store in an old railroad outpost of Philadelphia's northern suburbs is a stocking stuffer's dream and a marketing man's nightmare. A tone-deaf treasure chest of slightly off-color toys, Christmas ornaments, oddly appealing gourmet treats - even medieval spears and pickaxes.

But the real gem at Good Things may be the man behind the madness. Owner: Doug Hild. Age: 44. Virtue and Vice: Grown-up Who Loves Toys.

Hild knows how every trinket works, from the motion-activated "Fart Detector" to The Talking Beer Clock. And he insists on showing even his most buttoned-down customers what lurks on his shelves. It's Hild's reputation in town. A "prankster," some say. An incorrigible joy addict.

"Make sure his mask is on right," Hild said Thursday, before releasing a screaming slingshot-monkey across the store. The caped primate hit the rug somewhere near the scented candles and the pain pills on a back shelf that keep Hild steady on his leg brace and mobile on a ravaged spine.

"I gotta touch the toys," he said. Hild is just that kind of a guy.

And Good Things is just that kind of a place - an old-town general store and a neighborhood bar rolled into one, where people come to break the rules of retailing.

Everything here is stamped with the personalities and passion of Hild and his longtime wife, Brenda. Their beloved store, like their family, is glued together with good will, high spirits and steady values - even in tough times.

Good Things, like Hild, is a survivor. Open 13 years now, it has withstood the arrival of one Wal-Mart after another, all within a half-hour drive from the shop in East Greenville, Montgomery County. The store has even held its own against a Wal-Mart that opened just a half-mile down Main Street, though times are definitely tighter than ever.

The business model? Mish-mosh meets passion. The Hilds buy whatever they like and stuff it wherever they find space. They have 400 suppliers and buy nothing without touching, tasting or sampling it first.

You could spend hours in the store and miss half the merchandise, but still find what you never thought you needed.

The rules of modern retailing are not just broken here; they are shattered. Perhaps this is why people come to Good Things. To break the rules and smile for a while.

Just like Hild, whose excruciating spine condition might have put a lesser man in a wheelchair and out of business long ago.

Love, work and escape

Brenda and Doug Hild are that rare couple who have not only broken the 20-year marriage barrier, they've done so mostly side-by-side in a small shop without killing each other.

Brenda Hild buys the candles, gourmet foods and greeting cards. Doug Hild buys the toys and "paintball stuff," as a sign in the store calls it.

"We have a lot of fun in here," Doug Hild said. "It's almost like a bar - without the alcohol. People come in when they want to talk, when they want to tell you their problems."

Ostensibly, customers come here to find that perfect gift that no other store seems to sell.

In practice, though, they linger for longer than they have time to, and have a little more fun than they'd probably ever admit to their children.

Consider Janine Jacobs.

On Friday, the 42-year-old geologist was browsing for gifts. Her initial assessment of the store was practical: "I really like it a lot," she said - particularly the variety.

A closer look, however, revealed a naughty bumper sticker in her clutches:

"Don't Tailgate Me or I'll Flick a Booger on Your Windshield".

Jacobs was mortified that her taste in gifts had been revealed. She began laughing hysterically and trying to hide the stash of other doodads in her hands - including a so-called "faucet light" that turns running water a shade of sapphire blue.

"Janine," Doug Hild shouted from the front of the store, "you're blushing!"

Jacobs came clean. This store, she admitted, is an escape. She sneaks in on lunch break with her girlfriends. It's fun to poke around in Doug and Brenda Hild's world.

"I kind of get lost," she said. "It's me time."

The rocks of Main Street

The three children in the Hild household learned long ago that Dad has more child in him than most people - themselves included. Exhibit A: When Dad would bring home the new toys.

"Even if my brother and I didn't find them that interesting," said Tyler Hild, 17, Dad would have a hard time letting go of the gizmo.

Tyler Hild began to wonder if his father secretly hoped every toy delivery would contain misfits. Only the broken ones make it home. It's how a small shop controls inventory.

"It's cool that he gets really excited about them," said Tyler Hild, a student at Upper Perkiomen High School. "I mean, really excited about them."

It's a wonder that Doug Hild can smile at all, given his physical problems. He had been a chef for years when a kitchen mishap left him with a spine of slipped disks.

"I lost a wrestling match with a piece of meat trying to get it into the oven," he said. His foe was an 80-pound rack of ribs.

"My whole back is shot," Doug Hild said. "That's why we're here."

By here, he meant Good Things.

The Hilds said they never could have opened the shop if they didn't get along really well. They've been together since they were classmates at North Penn High School in Lansdale in the 1980s.

They moved up to East Greenville about 20 years ago and opened the gift store so Doug Hild could work at a less physically demanding job.

They now live in nearby Pennsburg, the next town over on Main Street. But his back has only gotten worse. When he temporarily lost use of both legs three years ago, Doug Hild had surgery for the second time. Today, he walks with a brace, sometimes pulls out a cane, and wears morphine patches on his upper arms just to stand on his two feet.

"When I go home, it's immediate collapse," Doug Hild said. "I pass out cold for two or three hours. It's like it catches up with me."

His struggle with physical pain is known among the tight-knit business community, though he seldom, if ever, lets it show to customers.

"You just don't see that with him," said Luanne B. Stauffer, executive director of the Upper Perkiomen Valley Chamber of Commerce, whose office is down the block. "He's really overcoming some serious issues. I think I'd just be cranky."

Instead, she said, "he's really playful."

Stauffer said the Hilds were rocks on Main Street. Brenda Hild helped launch revitalization efforts years back and is a pillar of civic life in town. Their children are always the first to volunteer for town events.

Tyler Hild, who with his brother and sister grew up in Good Things, has gleaned life lessons from within the store's four walls. His father's pain and uncommon love for wacky things, he said, are Lesson Number One.

"He's a little younger at heart than the rest of us," Tyler Hild said. "He's still strong."

That strength, he said, comes from a childlike soul.

Quite simply, Tyler Hild explained: "He's still got spirit."


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.