Did you ever wonder where all the stuff in national park bookstores comes from? At the Association of Partners for Public Lands conference in Las Vegas, 130 vendors of educational and outdoor-themed products exhibited their merchandise for two days.
I took the time to walk up and down the rows to see them and meet the people behind the books, gadgets, T-shirts, and food we see in national park bookstores. The products are meant to further the mission of APPL and the members to educate and inform the American public about their natural and cultural heritage.
Buyers from non-profit cooperating associations were working hard at the convention, deciding if the various products would fit well in the stores and sell briskly. But before the item was placed on the shelves, it would have to go through an approval process.
For instance, a panel of park interpretive rangers in the individual park targeted for the item have to be convinced that the book, T-shirt, stuffed bear, or children's game was somehow tied to the educational mission of the organization and the land they support.
I enjoyed visiting with the small companies and talking to the owners. Here are a few products that caught my eye:
The Wildflower Company packages seeds of wildflowers that grow in national parks. They create seed packets, postcards, and even fragrances. The company started in 1999 by Geri and Steve Peterson after Steve was involved in reclamation work. He planted trees on old mine sites but thought "what about the flowers that have been displaced?" So he started saving wildflowers. Now the Petersons offer wildflowers packaged by states and national parks. The wildflowers are cultivated off-site and not lifted from the Parks.
Ranger Doug's Enterprises creates postcards, posters and playing cards of the old Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA's Federal Art Project printed more than 2 million posters in 35,000 different designs on topics such as education, theater, health, safety, and travel.
National parks were part of that series. Unfortunately only a small percentage of these designs have survived. Doug Leen reproduced the posters he found in the various archives. He's also been commissioned by the national parks to continue this series with contemporary designs "in the style" of the WPA.
Mr. Leen was at his booth and enticed me into a game of cards that I was bound to win. This was Vegas, after all. I walked away with a set of Great Smoky Mountains National Park playing cards.
Olympia Granola makes the granola bars sold in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bookstores. They come in eight flavors - Expresso Almond Coffee is my favorite. They are good but so high calories, 190 per serving. You need to look hard at the small print to see that the trail bars are meant for two servings. Now who shares a granola bar? Even more unlikely, who brings one home for the next hike? But did I say they were good?
Bill Forsman, the founder and owner of the company, was there, greeting the convention attendees. The booth had a "granola man," a guy wearing a granola suit and a mask. He encouraged everyone passing to get a picture taken with him. He then thanked the passerby with a granola bar.
Bear Wallow Books are small, 32-page booklets containing historic recipes. The company is 34 years old and Linda and Tom Wolfe bought it 14 years ago. Ms. Wolfe has always been interested in old recipes and has a collection of historic cookbooks, dating back to 1841.
Some titles were written with the help of local museums, some were inherited from the previous owner, and the rest were written and tested by Ms. Wolfe. The 40 titles retail for around $5 each. At that price, visitors don't think too hard about getting a couple of booklets as souvenirs. I picked up the Old-Fashioned Cookie Recipes booklet and flipped through the Drop Cookies section. The recipes looked familiar but they were truly old-fashioned; no mention of whole-wheat flour, brown sugar or adding flax seeds.
Museum Masterworks started with art and sculpture reproductions for museum and library gift shops. Most of us can't afford a Rodin or Degas sculpture, but we might enjoy a quality reproduction of the famous dancer. Now the company has branched out into illustrated crossword puzzles. I'm still struggling with the American Revolution crossword puzzle that I picked up.
Folding nature guides of birds, flowers, or trees are a great help when visiting an unfamiliar park. The laminated folded cards illustrate the most common species in the area. Steven M. Lewers & Associates started with one card depicting shells or Sanibel Island, Florida. Now they have bird and animal cards for the whole country.
Two photographers, Albert Barg and Jeff Weisberg, take all the pictures that they turn into postcards and posters at Marc-Martin Publishing. The colors on their work are magnificent. Mr. Barg and Mr. Weisberg started as photographers and grew a business out of it. Like many exhibitors at the APPL show, their work is not confined to just national park subjects.
Major publishers and university presses had large exhibits displaying books on flora and fauna of the Southwest. Eastern National and Western National Parks Association, two cooperating associations with bookstores in many smaller park units in their respective areas, were represented. Eastern National produces the National Park Passports and now an app with the same information. Coincidentally, National Parks Traveler had reviewed their app that same week and I brought it to the attention of their sales staff. They then dedicated one of their iPads to showing the Traveler review.
Not everything was interesting and worth bringing home. One vendor was selling plastic clips to hook a store-bought water bottle to a belt. The clip looked like it was not going to survive a day on the town or in a Park. A reusable water bottle would be a better investment.
Cheap pottery, mugs, and pens were also on display. Some children's coloring books and picture books were thin with garish colors. Not only were the books printed in China but the contents might have been designed and written in a developing country as well.
If there was one theme to the exhibitor area, it was Made in America. Anyone with a product made here advertised that fact big and bold.
I approached a vendor selling coffee mugs from China and asked.
"So what would it cost to make this in the U.S.?"
He claimed that the wholesale price would go up from $8.50 to $10.00." A T-shirt would go up from $17 to $20, if made in this country.
Would visitors pay extra for the Made in America label? I couldn't get a clear answer from anyone.