I've been to quite a few stores and galleries that sell vinyl, and honestly, I love them all. Each has their own little quirks and cool things about it. But never, never before in my adventures have I ever had the sensory overload I got when I stepped inside Rotofugi, which just recently moved into their new location. On the surface, it's a lot like jumping into Willy Wonka's factory, except without Oompa Loompas.
But there's more to it than perhaps anyone could tell just at first glance. Rotofugi is, in short, the vinyl heart of the American heartland.
Rotofugi (pronounced "ro-to-fu-ji" officially but eternally slaughtered by yours truly as "ro-to-fu-gi" thanks to three years of Japanese in college) is the creation of Kirby and Whitney Kerr, who opened the store in July 2004. Originally, the store was located in a tiny storefront on West Chicago Avenue, but this summer, they moved into the ground floor of a flatiron building at the intersection of Diversey, Racine and Lincoln avenues in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. This is the front door, and from a distance, it looks a little unassuming, like all the other stores I had been to up until this point.
The first thing you notice about Rotofugi is that IT IS FRIGGIN' HUGE. Seriously, this place is far bigger than I had ever imagined; I think Kirby mentioned it was more than 2,000 square feet in total. You will not feel cramped at all inside Rotofugi, unless there's like 300 or 400 people all in here at the same time. Thankfully, it never got that bad when I was there.
The far right wall of the store is covered in vinyl and wooden figures. No matter what it is, it seems Rotofugi has it. Dunnys, Pecanpals, To-fu, even larger pieces like Sket-One's Ripple, Frank Kozik's busts and Touma's Mao Cat: everything's here at your fingertips. I realized at this point that leaving my credit card locked up somewhere safe before I come into this store in the future might be a good idea because I might otherwise but the entire store for myself.
There's also an entire section that contains just about everything you could possibly want Uglydoll-related. Plushes and figures galore! They've even got all the different Bosy Bears and Turtl-HERP DERPPPPPPPPPPPPPP
And this? This is their blank figure selection. If you're looking for something to customize, odds are Rotofugi has it. They even have the Munny Car I've only seen a few times in my journeys.
But kaiju fans, you're not left out, either. Rotofugi has an entire wall-sized case filled to the brim with all different kinds of kaiju in all different colors to pick from. It's a very impressive display to see in person, and I even found a few little kaiju I was interested in among them all.
Oh, hey boss. Didn't see you there.
But Rotofugi has a few other things besides vinyl toys. Among their other items for sale are bags, zipper pouches and beverage containers ...
... as well as a small assortment of art books, pens, pencils, notebooks, diaries and magazines. There's actually quite a few of the books and magazines, offering a good selection to prospective buyers.
On top of it all, through a partnership with Formula Werks, they have a number of unique and creative T-shirts, most of them vinyl-related. I personally like this one and forgot to pick it up on this trip, so I'll have to get it next time. The one that wasn't vinyl-related was a Chicago one and I'd never be caught in one of those because my family, relatives and friends in Detroit might disown/kill me. Sorry, Kirby.
But it's more than just T-shirts. Rotofugi has partnered with Squibbles Ink to produce vinyl and plush creations like the original Ninjatown plush line from Shawnimals, the Marshall blind-boxed series from 64Colors, the blind-boxed Tear Drips line from Travis Lampe and The Lake Monsters, a vinyl series featuring the works of artists like Chris Ryniak and Brian Morris.
If this looks familiar, then you're not feeling deja vu: this is the Rotofugi Gallery, located toward the back of the store. It has plenty of space as well; heck, it's bigger than some of the vinyl stores I've even seen all by itself!
And then there's this little fellow. Tucked away in a corner is the Roto-A-Matic, an old Mold-A-Rama machine being re-purposed by the Rotofugi crew to make custom blown vinyl toys with pretty much the same process as the original Mold-A-Rama machines. The big stumbling block left to tackle is the mold itself, as finding someone to make one for them has kind of taken longer than hoped. Still, they hope to have it running once the first mold is made. You can follow the progress of the project here.
Chicago vinyl fans are incredibly lucky to have a place as awesome as this to go to for all their vinyl needs. Not just for its size or for its people or for the diversity inside its walls ... okay, maybe for all those things. There are very few major stores in the Midwestern United States that carry as much as Rotofugi does, and yet, for a store their size, it feels just like any of the smaller stores I've ever stepped foot in.
In a way, Rotofugi is to me in the same category as Japan, in that it's a place where it's not a matter of if I'll ever go back, but a matter of when I go back. There's no denying that even with the 5 hour trip, the tolls and the gas money (stupid lack of trains ...), it was all worth it to come to this one little place for a day and get lost inside of it. Check out the gallery for more shots as I count down the days to my next visit. I hope it's soon ...
[Thanks to Kirby and Whitney for being such awesome hosts on my visit!] Photo Gallery: (34 images)
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