Despite the humidity-soaked swelter weighing down employees and tourists alike in Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard, one man looks fresh as a Made in the USA flag.
Wearing a top hat and tails, and toting a rucksack and display tray of jack-in-the-boxes featuring Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, Dave Manzo is smiling serenely behind his star-spangled sunglasses as a steady stream of passersby stopped to admire his toys and outfit, and to pose for photos with the memorabilia merchant.
As much a part of political conventions as stem-winding speeches and celebrity-spotting, the hunt for the perfect souvenir – a button, commemorative coin or bedazzled T-shirt – is big business.
How big? While no one contacted for this story would divulge sales figures, the number is not insignificant: souvenir sales for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 surpassed the $2 million mark.
Manzo’s tally for the 2016 DNC won’t reach that figure, but it will be respectable, especially considering the excessive heat and torrential thunderstorms that depressed sales during the first and last days of the four-day convention. He has sold “a few dozen” of each toy, “and I don’t expect the Hillary ones to be around much longer. I only brought nine boxes with me – my goal was really to get Twitter followers and direct people to the website (barackinthebox.com, hillaryinthebox.com).”
For Manzo, this year’s convention is entrepreneurial déjà vu: he is selling the remainder of inventory he and his wife had made for the 2008 campaign. Thus, no Bernie-in-the-box or Donald-in-the-box – and that suits him just fine, especially in light of the vitriol of frustrated Sanders supporters. “They would walk up to me and say, ‘Killary in the box!’ he exclaims. “And I have never even come across a Trump supporter in Philly.”
Jack-in-the-boxes would certainly fit in with the souvenirs offered at the dawn of the memorabilia era – the 1896 presidential election, which saw the first iteration of pin-back celluloid campaign buttons that continue to be the most prevalent item available on street corners, at panels and in official souvenir stands. (The first presidential candidate to make use of campaign souvenirs is generally acknowledged to be Andrew Jackson in 1824.)
Some of the items on offer at the nine separate official memorabilia stores set up and staffed across Center City by Todd A. Rose’s Telrose Corporation, on the other hand, would not. Bedazzled name pins, photo-collage thermal coffee cups and donkey-shaped cookie cutters are just a few of the items supplementing the more traditional ones.
Rose is happy to have people make fun of the cookie cutter – after all, he reports, it sold out in two days. He didn’t get one himself – “I like the button that says, ‘I’m With Her,’” he says. For him, the most important thing – other than moving as many pens, refrigerator magnets and baseball caps as possible – is what the contract allows him to do.
“We got started with the application process in November,” Rose recalls. “Eventually, I was engaged by Mark Weiner” – the Democratic fundraiser and friend of the Clintons, whose company, Financial Innovations, Inc., has provided official campaign merchandise for the DNC since 1980 – “to staff, stage and distribute products.” (Mr. Weiner died July 26, just before he was to travel to hear Bill Clinton speak at the convention.)
The result of that engagement: Rose’s firm has employed 100 people from the Philadelphia area during the weeks leading up to, during and after the convention.
And as for what happens to the items that failed to sell during the DNC? “Some of the stuff we will take and turn around for a show in Las Vegas,” Rose explains. “Some we are shipping back to the warehouse – and we will have some discounted merchandise at the store on Chestnut Street.”
With his prime real estate – a chair, some bags and tote boxes stuffed with souvenirs – perched on the southwest corner of 12th and Market streets, steps from the Loews Philadelphia, it’s tough to miss Ellwood Yango Sawyer.
He doesn’t seem to mind too much if you do, though. Sawyer, the co-founder of the Washington, D.C. nonprofit Returning Citizens, is settled comfortably into his canvas chair, and is as content to watch the heated parade passing in front of him as he is to sell a sparkly “OBAMA” hat.
“I’m a returning citizen,” he says. “That means I’ve been incarcerated before. We vend as a way of being self-sufficient.”
Sawyer says he is selling Obama memorabilia instead of Clinton swag because of an illness. His group “did a show in Florida at the Tom Joyner Family Reunion” late last year. “I got sick, had a lot of Obama stuff left over, so I figured we’d come here to see if we can sell it.”
It’s no slight against Clinton – he is a big supporter of hers, and hopes that she will continue Obama’s precedent of releasing non-violent drug offenders early from prison.
Although tote bags plastered with images of the Obama family seem to be selling well, Sawyer doesn’t expect that to continue, for obvious reasons. “We’ve been selling these since 2008,” he says. “I don’t know how well they’ll sell now because people are interested in Hillary. But it doesn’t bother me that much, because I’m on vacation here.”