In the late 1920s, her alcoholic husband’s fortunes in steep decline, John Cheever’s mother took matters into her own hands and opened a gift shop. This so rankled teenage John that he was still fuming decades later. In his debut novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, the abomination appears as a decrepit boat, the Topaze, billed as “New England’s Only Floating Gift Shoppe.” That desperate appeal to singularity—“only”—was a perfect touch. One of the most famous gift shops in the United States, which is more or less incidentally an event center, boasts of being “The World’s Only Corn Palace.” The traveler can but wonder if the world needs more than one, or if one is already one too many.
Any self-respecting esthete will feel Cheever’s pain. The American gift shop is a jamboree of bad taste. It is where the ugly meets the cheap and gimcrack, the tacky, the Made in Taiwan. Its language is sentimental, when it isn’t jingoistic, when it isn’t trading in low-octane puns and sub-sophomoric sexual innuendo. It smells of nacho cheese and Black Ice air fresheners. If it had a soundtrack, it would be wind chimes, rain sticks, and Andean flute music—punctuated by whoopee cushions.
Family lore has it that my paternal great-grandparents defrayed the cost of their Florida Keys fishing expeditions by selling handmade seashell-encrusted house wares. I possess a set of their salt and pepper shakers in this style. “Style” may be putting it too strongly, but they’re practically Louis Comfort Tiffany compared to some of the specimens I’ve come across in my extensive travels throughout America. This summer I made landfall in Idaho, my last contiguous state, and in several thousand miles I’ve seen things for sale to make a Goodwill cashier blush.
There was the Yooper Glossary in Escanaba, Michigan, which teaches you to talk like a cheerfully alcoholic deerslayer from the Upper Peninsula. “Lydia of Macedonia’s Merchant Shop,” the gifts section of the Valtiroty Shiloh Tabernacle, a family-operated Bible Museum in Mitchell, South Dakota, sells not only doomsday literature but also such End Times essentials as gas cans, auto circuit testers, and bug zappers. The Geology Museum of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City, tempted me with a dinosaur head hard-boiled egg mold. In Wall, at Wall Drug, there was a wall devoted to that Baphomet of kitsch, the Jackalope.
At the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills, I spied a beer coozie styled as the leathery, crop-topped embonpoint of some biker’s “old lady,” and a “Drain the Swamp” t-shirt with Trump, astride a motorcycle, as the Terminator. Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, had its disturbingly lifelike knee-high aliens, and its adorable plush ones, for the kids. At a gas station in Alzada, Montana, a magnet commemorated the banged-up mountain men of the “Grizzly Bear Artificial Insemination Team,” and, on a more menacing note, there was a ball cap with crossed handguns that read “Judge & Jury.” Of all the ersatz-Native Americana I saw, everywhere I went, the less said, the better.
When it comes to vernacular taste in these United States, the writing is on the wall. And it was done with a wood burning kit.
Sure, there are classy gift shops. At the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York, one can buy a handsome “beef on weck” Christmas ornament, accurate down to the salt and caraway seeds on the Kimmelweck roll. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Preservation in Spring Green, Wisconsin, features high-end Wright-inspired birdhouses and welcome mats—mercenary, but not visually offensive.
The Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, sells lovely Native American crafts alongside a breathtaking exhibition of contemporary Native American art. The Aladdin Mercantile in Aladdin, Wyoming (population 15), may sell a shirt that reads “Rocky Mountain Oysters: The Original Sack Lunch,” but it’s also a wonderland of Western antiques: spurs, Native American weapons, even a genuine Vibroplex telegraph key.
These are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Most of what one finds out there—the tchotchkes, the gewgaws, the bric-a-brac—belongs in a landfill. But I now confess that I love the stuff anyway, always have, and that this strange affection only deepens as I grow older and pay closer attention to who is doing the traveling and why. There are, naturally, the young people discovering their country for the first time, intoxicated by bad books like On the Road or, this being 2018, by #vanlife Instagram accounts. But there are also the young parents who want to show America to their kids, with pride. There are the people who work too hard, who wish to recreate in places wilder and more beautiful than home. There are the older folks, in Brobdingnagian RVs, chasing dreams of lives that might have been.
When I made my first cross-country drives, I compulsively collected refrigerator magnets. It wasn’t enough to collect states; I needed tangible proof that I really had set foot in all those places. The word “souvenir,” remember, means “remembrance.” And what did I intend to remember? I loved my magnets for their variety and specificity; for the history that they embodied; for the way they boiled regional character down to a few well-chosen elements; for the way they encouraged a benign regional chauvinism, by reminding you that the other guy was different, even weird, but still indispensably American. The cheesiness, jokiness, and sentimentality were just ways of subduing patriotic emotion, which was itself a way of acknowledging and respecting its power.
Put another way, gift-shop nationalism is to the real thing what fireworks are to actual bombs bursting in air. A country that puts its most cherished symbols on shot glasses and inside snow globes, that turns its leaders and heroes into t-shirt caricatures and bobbleheads, has something akin to an aesthetic system of checks and balances. Picture the opposite of Brutalist architecture. Doesn’t it look a lot like the Corn Palace, Al’s Oasis, 1880 Town, and Wall Drug?
The greatest thing the American gift shop and its appalling wares preserves for us is the beautiful, sometimes solemn, sometimes comic poetry of American toponyms. Bad Axe. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Possum Kingdom Lake. Craters of the Moon. The poet laureate of this phenomenon is Stephen Vincent Benét, a minor poet whose most-anthologized work, “American Names,” includes the refrain “I will remember.” It is from this work that we get the deathless phrase “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.” It is in the postcard racks and magnet boards of the gift shop that we’re asked the haunting question, “Where shall we bury yours?”