The Bucks Stop Here

In stone-cold economy, Obama souvenirs are hot commodities

January 18, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - Jim Warlick has been in business through eight inaugurations over 28 years, but he has never seen a frenzy like the one surrounding President-elect Barack Obama.

The owner of Political Americana, a souvenir retailer with a store blocks from the White House, said sales have never been better.

His five locations have bustled for weeks with people buying T-shirts, bobbleheads, buttons, paper dolls or other Obama memorabilia. Customers snap pictures in an Oval Office setting at the store, sitting behind a replica of a desk used by various presidents since 1880. Fake windows show cherry blossoms and the Washington Monument in the background. A life-size cutout of Obama stands to the side.

Warlick expects visitors to jam his stores even more during the coming days as 4 million people are predicted to arrive for Obama's swearing-in Tuesday. Warlick said his biggest worry is running out of merchandise.

"I've never seen a person's image sell so well," said Warlick, who opened three new stores just for the inauguration. "This is the biggest year I've ever had, and it's all because of Obama."

The weak economy has made it tough for businesses in just about every industry, but some are managing to capitalize on Obama's popularity and his historic inauguration.

Restaurants are offering inaugural menu items, and retailers are holding sales. Newspapers are selling special-edition press plates. Museums are stocking presidential books and watches, while vendors are filling their carts with all things Obama.

Obama merchandise ranges from the standard political buttons and pens to the more extravagant - Political Americana is selling $300 bottles of champagne with the date of the inauguration engraved on the bottle. Obama bobbleheads are selling for $29.95, crystal paperweights for $74.95 and Obama action figures for $14.95.

Inaugurations always bring out plenty of creative merchandise. But the interest this time seems to surpass all others, according to consumer experts.

"This is a moment of history, having the first person of color/biracial president, so we want the T-shirt," said Sara Raley, an assistant professor of sociology at McDaniel College who recently taught a class on consumer behavior. "That's who we are as Americans. It's like it doesn't count if you don't get the T-shirt."

During most of the year, Teresa's Garden Center on New York Avenue is a landscaping and garden business. But during recent months, its owners converted the location into a temporary political souvenir store.

They're taking advantage of the company's prime location on a major thoroughfare traveled heavily by drivers headed from Maryland to Washington. "Obama Headquarters" signs hang prominently in front of the business. Plants and potting soil have been replaced with buttons, calendars and T-shirts.

Holly Hamilton, visiting Washington from South Dakota, saw the signs recently and stopped to pick up some keepsakes before heading back home. She saw Obama speak during the campaign and is a big fan, even though she hails from a Republican-leaning state.

"I just wanted to buy something because it's such an historic moment," said Hamilton, a 34-year-old surgical assistant.

Street vendors are packing their carts with merchandise that highlights the president-to-be's face, though there are some hard feelings among some of the regular hawkers. Washington's vending license lottery to choose who would have access to high-traffic areas was criticized because many regular vendors weren't granted prime locations and are being moved from their standard spots.

Cornelius Williams, 68, normally sells near a subway stop on 13th Street downtown. But he'll have to find a new location on Inauguration Day. He plans to sell Obama buttons and hats near Howard University instead. While sales haven't been as brisk as he'd like, given the economy, Williams hopes to make some extra money Tuesday.

Nancy Crawford, 67, and her fiance, Frank Battle, 53, will sell their goods at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and F Street. Sales were slow one day last week, but Crawford expects things to pick up closer to the inauguration.

"People will buy because they love him," she said as she sat in front of a table of Obama T-shirts, purses and hats.

Even in Baltimore, businesses are hoping to prosper from the Obama frenzy. Ruth's Chris Steak House plans an inaugural menu that includes some of Obama's favorite foods, including shrimp and grits. The menu will be a keepsake that diners can take home.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History is selling Obama dolls, T-shirts and coloring books, among other things. The Visionary Art Museum has been selling Obama $12 "bling" watches, which include pictures of the president-elect and are embellished with costume jewels.

Business owners say Obama resonates with people from all backgrounds, just as he did during the campaign when he packed stadiums - including some overseas.

"He's just so energizing of a figure," said Warlick, of Political Americana. Warlick said 25 percent of his customers are tourists from other countries, many of whom buy bags of merchandise to take back to their relatives and friends.

Shaun Dale Robertson, 28, in town from Ohio for the inauguration, posed behind the presidential desk at Political Americana recently. He said he wanted something to show his kids and grandkids one day.

"This is a monumental moment," he said.

Nicole Lewis, who is 43 and lives in Arlington, Va., was buying mementos for a pre-inaugural party she and friends are planning tomorrow night. The Peace Corps worker had hoped to buy a life-size cutout of Obama so her party guests would feel as if the president-elect was there. When her search came up short, she settled for buttons and other items.

"We feel as if this is the real New Year's Eve," she said of her pre-inauguration gathering. "It's a huge time in our lives."

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