Skip to content

Don't forget the pencil

4 min

I love thematic site-specific gift shops. You know the type, the ones you engage with after a museum or amusement park experience. The assortment is specific to the location and highly commemorative of what you saw, did, and felt during your time there.

This love affair traces back to my summer camp days with the YMCA in Los Angeles. I vividly remember being at Knott's Berry Farm theme park. My parents would send me off with a brown bag lunch and some pocket change for buying ice cream and something to drink during the day. At the end of the day, when campers were reunited by the theme park's entrance and killed time in and around the gift shops, my money was spent. And by money, I'm talking $10 or $15 max.

Kids with money to burn shopped for keychains, giant lollipops, silly hats, t-shirts, and whatever else their hearts desired at the moment. I browsed, window-shopped, and imagined finally finding a fake California license plate magnet with my full name on it. Buying two magnets, one for "Ana" and one for "Maria" felt silly, and they rarely ever had either. Plenty of "Anna" and "Marie" options, however.

I felt left out of the thrill of purchasing (and enjoying something on the bus ride back) but never truly felt sad or disappointed about it. I wanted to purchase souvenirs for the fun of it, but the objects themselves, or lack thereof, didn't define my experience.

That is until one particular field trip to the Los Angeles Zoo. At the time, small animal wax sculptures were the hot item for spend-happy campers. Made-to-order gorillas, giraffes, and other animals in various wax colors came out of a vending machine; it was a novelty. I resisted buying one for many summers, but I went for it during this visit. The gorilla I selected cost around $6, which felt like a huge investment considering the cost of water or soda was $3-$4. When I returned home, I realized what a terrible purchase it was. My new wax figure served no function, and I had no emotional connection to it. I acquired it out of novelty and group think. The feeling of "what a waste" became my experience of that trip. Perhaps that's why my purchase of choice at museums and other site-specific gift shops was a pencil for the longest time.

Decades later, I now get to take my daughters to museums, theme parks, and centers where the opportunity to shop and enjoy physical mementos is part of a positive experience. And I'm grateful to be able to spend happily as my fellow campers did when I was young. As toys and things, in general, go for kids, my daughters may lose interest in the purchases. But while their interest does last, the time and money spent are worthwhile. Why worthwhile and not wasteful? Because the object, be it a small toy, game, sticker, stuffed animal, or book, re-enforces the intangible: the memories of the place and time spent together and what we learned and experienced while there.

An excellent example of this is involves something I almost didn't buy. After our eldest's first baseball game as a "big kid" at two and half years old, we headed towards the ball park's gift shop, where she instantly gravitated towards a tiny soft baseball bat and ball set with the Durham Bulls logo and mascot on it. I thought that she surely wouldn't play it at home and that it would be a "waste," but I ultimately gave in to her enthusiasm for it. She had so much fun bringing the ballpark experience home, and we played with it as a family, inside of our living room, for a long while. Now six years old and the bat and ball long since donated, she fondly mentions playing with them nearly every time we drive by the ballpark. The physical memento positively enhanced her memories.

Museums, theme parks, and sporting gift shops are unique in that way. They provide opportunities to bring a piece of their place home. Recently while in Los Angeles, I took my eldest and nieces to the Griffith Observatory. They had a blast blasting into space in the exhibit rooms and a planetarium show. After a snack at the cafe, they were eager to check out the gift shop. I was too. As we entered, I heard an older woman, perhaps a Grandma, say to a teenage boy, "consider it a symbol of the day we spent together." I didn't see what she or the boy had selected, but I could see the happy intent on their faces, thoughtfully looking at space-themed objects on the shelves.

The obvious mementos are the branded designs that specifically tell you (and remind you) where you were: branded t-shirts, hats, water bottles, mugs, and the like. The not-so-obvious ones that excite me most are the objects that evoke the essence of the place and experience. Books on outer space, small planet and starlight projectors, telescopes, and NASA branded toys summon the immersive experience of an observatory. An un-branded plush sea turtle picked up and snuggled by my toddler at an Alaskan aquarium can hold fond memories for the entire family. And fake old-timey pilot goggles purchased at the aviation museum can transport us back to flying above Anchorage, Alaska.

The context that these specialized gift shops exist in makes shopping a joy. Heightened senses give way to bringing the experience of learning, discovery, and fun back home with us. Site-specific gift shops give us the gift of enhancing our time spent long after we leave; better yet, our purchases support future experiences for us all. One sticker, keychain, and pencil at a time.

Branded and thematic designs at a personal favorite, the Anchorage Museum. Photo credit:

Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.