Papal Paraphernalia a Tricky Business

During his visit to New York, Pope Benedict has been greeted by cheering crowds. Another sound associated with papal visits is that of ringing cash registers, as the faithful and tourists shell out for pope paraphernalia. Studies of papal visits past suggest that when a pope comes to town, the restaurant and hotel economy gets a big boost. Still, it's a tricky business, as WNYC’s Ilya Marritz reports.

MUSIC: “SOS” from the cast recording of “Mama Mia”

REPORTER: When the New York Archdiocese needed someone to supply the souvenirs for the Pope’s visit, they turned….well where else?

The lady with a platinum disc on her wall for sales of over a million cast recordings of the musical “Mama Mia.”

GROSSMAN: My name is Randi Grossman and my firm does merchandising for Broadway shows.

REPORTER: Grossman’s company, Max Merchandising, is the official New York purveyor of Pope memorabilia.

GROSSMAN: this is a poly resin box and it has the logo of the pope’s visit here and on the inside there’s rosaries!...(click of rosaries)

REPORTER: They’ve ordered about a hundred thousand medallions, crucifixes and rosaries, priced at ten to twenty dollars each.

GROSSMAN: we have a set of tiger eye glass bead rosaries that we think will do really well at the youth rally ‘cause they’re kind of cool and hip.

REPORTER: It’s a tradition that goes back to earliest Christianity, and maybe the first Pope too.

KUNST: In the book The Acts of the Apostles, people would take handkerchiefs and try and rub them up against Saint Paul and it was probably similar with Peter as well.

REPORTER: Father Richard Kunst of Duluth, Minnesota is probably the nation’s foremost collector of papal memorabilia. On a priest’s salary, he’s gathered the signature of every Pope since 1623, and a thousand or so other valuable papal objects. He says buying mementos is simply an expression of faith.

KUNST: People that go and visit or try and see him at a major public audience like that are going to be whisked away by emotion, which is only natural, I’ve experienced that myself. Snd they’re gonna buy souvenirs for that purpose….

REPORTER: This morning, entrepreneurs all over New York are looking for a piece of the action. Vendor Kevin Tillman has set aside his usual grab bag of barettes and Spongebob Squarepants toys to hawk Pope necklaces and bracelets outside of Yankee Stadium.

TILLMAN: It’s one day only but it’s gonna be thousands of people so you’re gonna make money here. No matter what, you’ll make a little money out here.

REPORTER: If he sells out, no problem: he’ll hop the subway to midtown, where his wholesaler is waiting with more gear. But no pressure…

TILLMAN: You buy 15 or 20 things, you’ll still sell something. It’s all about hustling, not hitting nobody over the head.

REPORTER: Bucky Turco is another freelancer. He’s using cheeky online marketing to sell his poster of the Pope.

TURCO: We’re producing 666, obviously as a little snipe. We’re hoping that it gets picked up and that the kids that go in for the Christian rap and Christian rock would like it.

REPORTER: Dozens of blogs have linked to Turco’s poster, an image of Benedict that deliberately imitates a popular socialist-realist-style image of Barack Obama.

But that whole Mark of the Beast-limited edition thing? It’s just marketing.

TURCO: To go out and just print 666 at once, unless you’re gonna sell them you know is pretty silly. In all reality, we’ll probably get them printed at 50 or 100 at a clip.

REPORTER: The officicial merchandiser of the papal visit just just doesn’t have the luxury of ordering as she goes, so she’s been guesstimating: how many rosaries? How many slim-fit tees? How many travel mugs with the logo “Christ Our Hope”?

GROSSMAN: When you approach a broadway show, you know you have the life of the show, to get it right. This event was very difficult, because when the event is over, it’s over.

REPORTER: As if she needs the reminder, Grossman has stuck the Broadway show magnets she never sold all over her office door. After giving the Archdiocese its cut of this weekend’s gross, she just hopes to break even.

GROSSMAN: I'm gonna be really happy after everything is done, we don’t have a loss and that we made a little something. If we cover our cost of goods, the rest will just be gravy.

REPORTER: Hey, at least she can say, I merched the holy father. For WNYC, I’m Ilya Marritz.