Nixon and the King for $14.50 Nixon in '96: Though the former president has been dead almost two years, he's very much the heart of the "most successful" presidential gift shop in history.

Sun Journal

October 27, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORBA LINDA, CALIF. -- Nixon and Mao? Nixon and Ike? Nixon and JFK? No. No. And no.

The first duo you see upon entering the gift shop of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace is the famous 1970 image of Richard M. Nixon shaking hands with a bloated, bleary-eyed Elvis Presley in the Oval Office.

On a T-shirt, captioned "The President and The King." Yours for $14.50.

The shirt sells, which is very important to the Nixon library, which does not receive government operating funds.

"We have the most successful gift shop in the history of presidential libraries," says Kevin Cartwright, the Nixon library's assistant director.

And other presidential museums have taken notice.

"Those guys are the best marketers on the planet," says Lynda Schuler, a spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.

Looking for a gift, something political as the 1996 presidential campaign heats up? You can order this shirt, for $18.50: "Nixon in '96. Tan, Rested & Ready."

"I used to get press inquiries: Does President Nixon know about that?" Mr. Cartwright says of the T-shirts. "He knew about it, and he liked it."

There's more. There's the Nixon Birthplace Birdhouse ($45), the Nixon-and-Elvis wristwatches ($45) and the Nixon phone cards, good for $10 in long-distance calls.

Mr. Nixon, president from 1969 until he resigned amid Watergate in 1974, died in 1994. He was respected by some Americans, loathed by others. He was never considered a laugh riot.

But the gift shop's selections, even the sillier ones, reflect the man's personality, says Marvin Kalb, who directs Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics and whose most recent book was "The Nixon Memo."

"He was always eager to convey the impression that he was relaxed and one of the boys," Mr. Kalb says. "He was, in fact, a man with very little humor. And everything he did, or most things, seemed contrived."

Is a T-shirt promoting a dead president for office appropriate for a presidential library?

"He was always concerned about not having enough money," Mr. Kalb says. "I think if he believed it was producing capital, he would approve it even from his grave."

L Other presidential libraries tend to market more discreetly.

"We see our gift shop as an extension of the library," says Frank Rigg, museum curator at the John F. Kennedy library in Boston. "I don't think we sell anything you would describe as silly."

The Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta sells books, postcards and Habitat for Humanity T-shirts. For fun, and $20, you could buy a Smithsonian teddy bear. But that's as wild as it gets.

Ms. Schuler, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, says her gift shop sells the expected presidential items, but the staff has created a T-shirt to rival Nixon's.

It sports Mr. Reagan, dressed in the football uniform he wore in the film "Knute Rockne, All-American." "One More For The Gipper. Reagan in '96," the shirt reads.

From the day the library opened in 1990, Mr. Cartwright says, the gift shop seemed too small -- a clear mark of success. What with the postcards, the pens, the books, the White House china patterns, tourists were crowding the cash registers.

"We don't give out figures on what it grosses," Mr. Cartwright says. "But knowing how small our gift shop is -- I don't think it's even 600 square feet -- it would be the envy of any retailer."

SG There's a gift shop catalog for mail orders. And this time of year,

there's the Nixon library Christmas catalog.

If you need even more help, there's Debi Beck, the Nixon library gift shop's personal shopper. Call her and she'll suggest items to suit the interests of the recipient. "We felt people in this day and age wanted a little personal service," Mr. Cartwright says.

'I was a Nixonette'

Ms. Beck's Nixon credentials go way back.

"I was a Nixonette in the '72 campaign. We were the volunteers who cheered, 'Four more years,' " she said. She went to the Republican convention in Miami that year and was the Orange County Nixonette chairwoman.

She can suggest items for people interested in American history, the White House, first ladies.

There are the limited edition Richard Nixon memoirs, leather-bound and signed by the president, for $1,200.

"We also have a portrait of president and Mrs. Nixon, signed by both he and Mrs. Nixon, double-matted and framed, for $2,500." The portrait, in a limited edition of 100, is numbered and comes with a certificate of authenticity.

"We have a lot of people, particularly at the holiday season, who just come in to the gift shop," Mr. Cartwright says. "It's so much easier to take advantage of our ample parking than to go to a shopping mall and park on the third floor of a parking structure and walk for miles.

"We have presidential Christmas ornaments and presidential china," he says. "We have a wonderful watch that I think I might purchase with a presidential-looking seal."

Mr. Cartwright concedes that some visitors are surprised to find such flippant merchandise in such a formal setting.

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