An odd thing souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now.
– Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
Atwood was right. Souvenir shopping is a strange ritual. Even in the age of real-time social media reporting, there is still an incredibly powerful need to return from the Odyssey with the spoils of your voyage. Merchandise featuring some version of the line, “All I got was this lousy T-Shirt,” is a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that we feel the experience itself isn’t enough.
That said, gift shops are for last-minute purchases for forgotten cousins. Let me help you select souvenirs that tell the tale of your trek.
Souvenirs from local merchants just mean something more. Their production, purchase, and transportation are all threads in a common yarn that connects you to the place you’re visiting. Let’s explore a few examples.
When I was 15, a Santa Fe street merchant sold me a bird he had fashioned from a dried, painted gourd. This artifact of a family vacation has followed me through at least a dozen moves. Now beakless and missing a foot, Bending-Over-Backwards-Bird is currently overseeing operations in my home kitchen. I seriously doubt I would have retained this souvenir had I purchased it in an airport or New Mexico visitor’s center.
Don’t be afraid to think… bigger. Like smaller crafts, furniture made by local artisans is an excellent memento. Knick-knacks have the tendency to get jammed in boxes or dwell on seldom-dusted shelves in spare rooms. Instead of accumulating extra junk with no practical merit, consider slowly replacing functional items in your home with takeaways from your voyage. For any large purchase, whether a flight or furniture, I always recommend using a credit card that generates its own travel rewards. A desk chair here… a coffee table there…
Instead of a craft made very recently by the vendor, consider one made in the distant past. Antiques tell much of a location’s culture and history. If you’ve ever watched shows like American Pickers, you know that antiquing is a niche passion. Galleries tend to come in clumps or strings along the same roads. Do some homework and chart your course in advance. Also, unless you’re shopping only for personal enjoyment, buyer beware. There is a fine line between valuable artifacts and old junk.
Like craftspeople, artists produce unique souvenirs that are often an exceptional lens through which to view your journey:
Books pack well and are great travel companions. If you buy local authors early in your excursion, you can read them on the rest of your journey. More than passing the time, this adds local flavor. For instance, you may be able to compare landmarks to descriptions in the text or cultivate a better sense of dialect.
Of course, the paragon of book-buying is always the author signing. Recently, while at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, KY, I was treated to a tour and book signing by concierge & historian Larry Johnson. Don’t make the mistake of discounting these local legends. They have the capacity to craft unique experiences in a way that larger names do not. If you’re interested in making literature a larger part of your travels, check out my article Put the Book in Booking: Crafting An Author-Centric Itinerary.
No offense to the Boss, but I’m not talking about following Springsteen on tour. From Celtic string quartets to hip-hop duos, every region has local music. Don’t be satisfied with browsing the record shop, either. Do your homework and attend a performance or two. Amateur, regional, and other small-time acts are usually eager to meet their audience after (or even during) a show. There’s no better way to trek home with an interactive souvenir than buying a signed CD or vinyl. Nashville rising star Andrew Leahey played a great set and was happy to add a little ink to my purchase after.
When you read my section on furniture, you likely thought, “Sure that’s a cool concept, but it doesn’t quite fit in the overhead bin.” Even if your next expedition is a road-trip, space is a likely consideration. Depending on the size and final cost of an item, strongly consider shipping it home. If it’s expensive enough, the vendor may even cover shipping costs. Even if your new souvenir isn’t cumbersome, you risk damaging it (or other gear) by jamming it in your bag.
Photo and video curators
Gone are the days of tricking friends and colleagues into sitting through the slide show of your trip to Rome. These days, most people simply record their voyage on their phone. Unfortunately, the end result is often a few Gigabytes of memories that lie dormant. Unless you’re a blogger, the majority of people do very little with all those pictures they worked so hard to capture in places they’ll never go again.
In lieu of (or in addition to) purchasing a keepsake on the road, consider spending that money on a professional photo or video curator. While this used to be a very rare profession confined to museums and art magazines, it has ballooned in recent years. Now many curators select, edit, and package media for private clients at competitive rates.
Final thoughts on picking souvenirs
We can all agree that shot glasses with city skylines and sports-jersey-wearing teddy bears are layups, not slam dunks. And they’re expensive. Like theme park sodas and airport charging cables, last-minute souvenirs are desperation buys. Merchants know this, and they exploit it. On your next expedition, skip the gift shop. Return with a talisman that truly spins your tale.
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