Photo by Justin.
One afternoon before I moved away from New York City, I went into a midtown souvenir shop. I had always been drawn to these perverse places when I was traveling, but it had never occurred to me to walk into one where I lived – at least not on my own, not without someone who was visiting. Souvenir shops were everywhere in the city, but they had always been invisible. Then I started to see them.
I chose a store without really thinking about it. All of them are the same. Some are more organized than others, but the wares do not vary. Windows crammed with Lady Liberties line 6th Avenue around Macy’s and Penn Station. It was sunny out, and the store’s shelves sparkled with glass models of the Chrysler Building, prisms in the light. I walked the aisles, glancing over the posted signs:
SNOW GLOBES $7.99
TWO FOR $12.99
I saw Lady Liberties of different sizes, in green plastic and silver metal. Some of the objects were in better shape than others: a few of statues’ flames had broken off, and some of their crowns were bent.
I bought a snow globe and I felt sort of bad about it, even transgressing some kind of boundary. The man behind the counter asked me where I was from, and when I said, “New York,” he looked confused. I knew that you only buy souvenirs from places you don’t live, and that my purchase positioned me as an outsider, a consumer of the city.
It has been several years since then, and each time I’ve gone back, I’ve found myself wanting to go back into these shops. Souvenirs are junk, we say. But I like to handle the snow globes and tip them over and then place them back on the shelf in their orderly rows. There is never a single gap in the rows, not a missing object. I imagine that when something is purchased, it is immediately replaced.
In time, I have acquired a few Empire State Buildings. A Chrysler Building or two or three. A bell and a mug emblazoned with “I Heart New York.” Several snow globes of various sizes. The snow globes reminded me of winters in the city. It’s always winter in a snow globe, even in San Francisco or Seattle.
New York can’t stop representing itself. It wants all its monuments in miniature. This is true of many of the world’s cities. Souvenirs are a product of modernity and urbanity. They played an important role in the international expositions of the nineteenth century, which emphasized visual spectacle and consumption. Visitors took home buttons, decorative spoons, brass plates, napkin rings, and postage stamps as mementos of their experience. As tourism in the U.S. and Europe boomed after World War II, these objects were produced in even larger quantities.
The word “souvenir” means more than simply a cheap plastic object. It has to do with memory. In French, se souvenir de quelque chose is to remember something. World War I historian Paul Fussell notes that the term was absorbed into the English language to designate objects that English soldiers brought back from the front. In this case, a souvenir wasn’t a mass-produced object: it was something like a coin or a matchbook. Any object made these soldiers remember their battles overseas. This story of the word’s origin may not be true, but it is poetic. It reminds me that a souvenir is a token of nostalgia and loss.
Often, mass-produced souvenirs inspire anger and disdain: they are thought to represent the worst possible relationship to a place. Received wisdom dictates that they stand for unthinking consumer culture, superficiality, and a lack of taste. They are kitsch, and the art critic Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was deceptive and synthetic.
A quick survey of online forums about New York souvenir shops reveals strong views on the subject. What is the best souvenir shop? – A recurring question, with no conclusive answer.On one site, a user named Mel suggests that visitors avoid Times Square entirely and take home another kind of object: “A subway map and used metro card. Playbill and ticket stub from a Broadway Show. A rock from Central Park. A menu from your favorite restaurant.” It’s a nice idea. Mel believes in personal souvenirs and doesn’t think that the plastic detritus of global capitalism can be personal. I’m not sure that I agree and the forum users side with me, from their swift rejection of the idea. A snow globe can mean something. Shot glasses, magnets, pins, thimbles, and key chains — this “junk” can be significant.
Children love souvenirs, and they beg their parents for them. I want this and this and this. To them, these are glorious things, which may find a place at home on their desks or nightstands. But kids don’t really need souvenirs to remember a place. They just seem to remember. For adults, the artificial and the authentic converge in a souvenir shop, as they do in the city beyond, and as they do in memory. We tend to remember incorrectly, and in so doing, we make new things, sometimes ersatz and sometimes real.
This summer, when I was back in the city, I bought another Chrysler Building. On the counter, wrapped in newspaper, was my six-inch model. Outside was the actual silver tower, watching over the souvenir shop like a stubborn and immovable giant.