Kaleidoscopes: a prism of their own design

Kaleidoscopes: a prism of their own design

Though they are both incurable optimists, you wouldn’t say that Jan and Bobby Boal look at the world through rose-colored glasses.

More like prismatic-multicolored-rainbow-riot glasses.

The Boals are fanciers of the kaleidoscope, a 19th-century invention that contemporary craftsmen and artists have raised to the level of fine art.

The Kaleidoscope Shop, an eye-boggling boutique in the Northlake Mall area, contains the Boal’s remarkable inventory of kaleidoscopes created by more than 140 artists, ranging in size from gem-like pendants worn on a gold chain to jukebox-sized behemoths.

The shop itself is relentlessly colorful, filled with toys, games and a player piano that rattles off “Nola” at a superhuman tempo. It is dominated, however, by these curious instruments, invented by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster in 1816.

Brewster was a giant of the optical sciences. Among his many advances was the early description and measurement of polarized light and his invention of the lenses that made lighthouses practical. But he is best known for the kaleidoscope, a notoriety that would probably cause the prolific scientist some dismay.

On a recent afternoon at the Kaleidoscope Shop, as two young visitors played with a set of "magic" interlocking rings, the octogenarian couple -- he is 80, she is 83 -- offered a tour of the steampunkish contraptions in the store. They show off:

  • A kaleidoscope with multicolored feathers in the “element” that are rearranged by puffs of air from the squeeze-bulb of an atomizer.
  • A “garden” kaleidoscope mounted above a planter that refracts and rearranges the images of the flowers and leaves below.
  • A humongous device, created by Cozy Baker, who was responsible for the contemporary renaissance in kaleidoscopes; it uses a fish tank as source material for its scrambled patterns.
  • Another massive scope rearranges the images of a television set into TV mandalas.

“Watch the evening news here and it’s much less alarming,” joked Jan, a tall, slim retired professor of mathematics.

The Boals came to kaleidoscopes in a roundabout way.

When Jan retired from Georgia State University, he and his wife bought a Greek Revival bed-and-breakfast in Senoia, Ga., called The Veranda. Together they ran the nine-room retreat for almost 20 years, serving five-course dinners, sumptuous breakfasts and earning high marks for food and service.

They sold all kinds of things in The Veranda gift shop, including a puzzle game called “The L Game” that they independently manufactured and distributed. Attending toy fairs, they became entranced with kaleidoscopes and eventually acquired dozens. They even hosted meetings of the Brewster Society, led by matriarch Cozy Baker.

When they closed The Veranda five years ago, they kept the gift shop, now focused on kaleidoscopes, and transplanted it to the Northlake Mall area, which was a handy distance from their three children and multiple grandchildren. Daughters Emily Wert and Ginger Jamieson help out at the store, as have other family members.

All have the Boal-ian enthusiasm for kaleidoscopes and can speak at length about the materials and artists peculiar to each. While they sell the inexpensive cardboard-tube kaleidoscopes familiar to children, they also carry scopes made from such materials as brass, stained glass and rare woods, with price tags in the thousands.

The Boals realize that only a few fans will be interested in a thousand-dollar kaleidoscope.

Of one device that uses geodes in its element and is priced north of $3,000, Jan said, with some understatement, "We don't sell one every day."

The Kaleidoscope Shop, 2186 Henderson Mill Rd., 678-937-2673; www.kaleidoscopeshop.com

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