Taking home a little piece of your vacation Memories: All across this great nation, stores catering to tourists are peddling the souvenirs that make a trip truly memorable.

September 08, 1996|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

You go to the Atlantic, and you can't take the whole ocean back with you. There are rules, after all. But you want to bring back a little something to remember it by.

It might be a perfect seashell gathered on that final perfect morning as you and your lover walked hand-in-hand along the beach.

Or it might be a dead baby shark preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.

There is no such thing as "tourist junk" (though a dead baby shark in a jar -- found in a Newport, R.I., store for $9.99 -- comes real close). To everyone who brings something home from somewhere else, a souvenir represents a dear, tangible piece of a journey. It's a memory you can wrap or slip into a drawer or stick on a refrigerator.

But what's out there? What are people buying?

Some pretty amazing things. For example

The gift shop at Lincoln's New Salem State Park, near Springfield, Ill., sells souvenirs anyone would expect to find: Lincoln portraits, Lincoln books, Lincoln T-shirts, Lincoln pencil sharpeners, Lincoln back-scratchers. It also sells a Lincoln bust formed from a lump of genuine Kentucky coal. It's a steal at $3.

But then there is the really good stuff.

Rubber ants, scorpions, snakes, turtles, lizards, rats, bats and houseflies. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Lincoln or Illinois.

L "We sell a lot of them," said a woman who works the counter.

Floating eyeballs. Pink-tinted rabbits' feet. Nothing outsells rabbits' feet at the Lincoln's New Salem State Park Gift Shop, said the woman.

And who buys rubber rats and eyeballs and rabbits' feet at a Lincoln shrine?

"Kids," she said. "Kids will buy anything."

It's not just kids who buy anything.

At any of several boardwalk shops, you can buy a wooden napkin holder brightened by a gold-painted plastic crucifix and the message "Souvenir of Atlantic City, N.J." for about $7. At one store, these were just down the aisle from the ceramic, headless, bikinied torso that functions as a toothpick holder.

Do people actually buy these?

When asked that very question, the man at the register just shrugged, then bagged my ceramic, headless, bikinied torso that functions as a toothpick holder. (Hey, it was only $2.99, including picks.)

There are, nationwide, souvenir "basics."

Thimbles -- wooden, metal, ceramic, most emblazoned with a state name plus a state flower or a state bird or a state hero. Shot glasses. Key rings. Caps. Mugs. Bells.

Pens are interesting. The gift shop at Graceland sells a cool one with a large plastic '50s Elvis on the clip. $1.95.

Graceland's shop, by the way, may be the king of museum gift shops. There, you can buy just about everything Elvis, including an unusual clock. The face of the clock is on Elvis' body. His hips and legs are the pendulum. You get the idea.

It's $19.95.

Biggest seller?

"The 'I've been to Graceland' T-shirt, of course," said the woman at the counter. $14.95.

Almost as big: an Elvis Presley driver's license. His face is on it. It looks real. $1.99. The expiration date? Elvis' date of expiration -- Aug. 16, 1977.

Said the woman: "I don't know why we sell so many."

Back to pens. The fun pens are the animated ones, the pens with things that float through the barrel.

Pen panache

The National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City sells one that shows a cowboy chasing a dogie over the plains. The Mark Twain Riverboat in Hannibal, Mo., has one with a riverboat gliding into Hannibal. New Salem has one with Lincoln riding off to practice law. A shop near Strasburg, Pa., has one that shows an Amish buggy disappearing into a covered bridge. Near Mount St. Helens in Washington state, a shop sells one that sends smoke billowing from the volcano's crater.

They all run about $3. They'll amuse a child for several seconds, an adult for years.

Spoons, most of them little and silver, are huge. One shop in Durango, Colo., offers 18 variations of souvenir spoon bearing the word "Colorado," as well as another dozen or so that say "Durango" or "Silverton" -- it's nearby -- or "Indian Country."

The same shop also sells a cedar "lipstick bar" that holds six lipsticks and smells like a linen closet. $3.95.

Salt and pepper shakers are popular, of course, and range from appropriate (little moonshine jars, $4.95, West Virginia) to well-heeled (tiny blue cowboy boots, $3.95, Texas).

Everyone likes those domed "snowstorms," the kind you shake to activate. One that showers glitter on a field of Kansas sunflowers ($3) is especially neat.

And speaking of classics: If your parents escaped to the Ozarks when you were kids and all you got was that lousy T-shirt, you'll be happy to know you can hustle down to the Ozarks tomorrow and buy the same lousy T-shirt for your parents.

Or Ozarkland, a small chain of souvenir supermarkets spread over, well, Ozarkland, will sell you an "all they brought me was this lousy mug" mug for $3.95.

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