In a small factory in Glendale, two shifts of employees rapidly assemble an enduring symbol of the consumer age.

They're making shopping carts, but with a difference. Although the chrome-plated contraptions sport baby seats and nest just like the supermarket variety, these carts weigh only 
three pounds and are a mere 11 inches high.

In a recession, at a time when shoppers supposedly are seeking only things practical and inexpensive, two entrepreneurs-come-lately--one is a stand-up comedian/actor/sculptor 
and the other a television writer--have developed a novelty item that appears to be a hit.

"I may have created the pet rock of the '90s," said Jamie Reidy, a struggling joke teller who came up with the cart, which he calls the Dreamkeeper, in 1988. After hard years of 
design tinkering, manufacturing problems and sputtering revenues, 1991 brought a surge in sales and the company's first profit.

Dreamkeeper, expected to yield "a couple million" in revenue this year, comes with a plastic insert so it can be used as a planter, a purse, a salad bowl, a wine cooler, a fish 
bowl, a desk organizer, a gift holder or just about anything. The carts also come in a blue, red or 24-karat gold-plated finish. The company plans to introduce college colors in the spring and is looking for other novelty items to produce.

The Dreamkeeper became a hot item after Reidy and his partner, Nance McCormick, who handles sales, unveiled the cart at the February, 1991, New York International Gift Fair. Orders began pouring in.

Reidy and McCormick had been putting the carts together themselves in Reidy's Studio City apartment, and they were quickly overwhelmed. So they rented a building and started hiring. Now, eight employees assemble the carts as fast as they can with components that outside contractors produce.

Starting at $85 or so, the mini-carts cost more than the big ones. A Vons spokeswoman said the supermarket pays $80 apiece for its full-size grocery carts.

But some people are willing to shell out $85 and then some. The gold-plated version has been carried by retailers for more than $1,000.

Dean & DeLuca, the upscale New York gourmet store, featured the cart filled with six pounds of M&Ms in its 1991 Christmas catalogue for $130 each and sold "a substantial number of them," said Eileen Finnegan, assistant manager of mail order. Dean & DeLuca also sells the carts in the store stuffed with a variety of penny candies.

"They fly out of here. People love them," Finnegan said. "I had some ladies on the Upper East Side ordering five or six of them at a time."

So why has this thing taken off?

"What the appeal is, honestly, I really couldn't tell you," said Howard Flax, vice president of operations for the San Francisco-based Flax Art & Design catalogue and retail stores. "We have a couple of other items in the catalogue that serve no practical purpose. Perhaps they take peoples' minds away from the current times."

Reidy offers another possible explanation: "When you push a shopping cart, you can't control it, there's so much weight in it. This one you can control."
"It's a universal image," said McCormick, who likes to use the cart as a purse. "It's almost a sculpture that represents our consumer society."

Reidy said he isn't worried that the product's popularity will wane. So far, the company has done no advertising to capture a broad retail market, and a good portion of its sales are to businesses that use the Dreamkeeper in displays or promotions, including supermarkets, doll stores and a major soup producer.

"I think people will find new uses for it," he said. "It's an expensive item, let's face it. But if you get some flowers in it, you're never going to forget who sent it."