'Culture Commerce' An Artful Alternative To The Mall




As much as I love shopping, the holiday mall crawl can get old quick, even for me. Luckily, there's an alternative to big-box stores, crowded parking lots and long lines.

It's called "culture commerce" — retail lingo for shopping stores in museums, historical homes, zoos, botanical gardens, libraries, parks and other cultural institutions. These unique emporiums differ from standard retail operations in a number of ways. They feature interesting gifts (great when you're shopping for the impossible to buy for, like my brother-in-law), and profits go back to the museum, not to individuals or companies.

They're also quiet havens, where you can browse undisturbed for hours and get one-on-one help whenever you need it.

Take the Connecticut Historical Society's gift shop, for example. The well-appointed space features comfy chairs, elegant displays, cool items for adults and kids in a range of prices and even a sale shelf tucked into an alcove in the back.

Store manager Kathy Whitney says museum stores are extensions of the institutions they complement.

"Store offerings are a way for visitors to enhance their experience," says Whitney. "We have merchandise directly tied to our exhibits. Many of these items uniquely say 'Connecticut.'"

Like aprons done in collaboration with Windham Textile. Typewriter key jewelry (Royal Typewriter Company manufactured typewriters in Hartford for decades.) Totes made from exhibition banners. Prices start at $4 and go up to about $90. Most of the merchandise is priced between $20 and $40.

"We're a well-kept secret," says Whitney. "People discover us when they happen to come in for a program or exhibit. Then, once they know we're here, they come back just to shop."

Stephanie Peters, senior manager for communications for the Museum Store Association, says museum shops often have repeat customers, especially during the holiday season.

"These stores are a great alternative to the craziness," says Peters. "Plus when you purchase something, the money goes to support the museum, so when you buy a gift, you're giving twice. There's a misconception that things cost more, but that's really not the case. And you won't find a million of any one thing."

Peters estimates are that there are 5,000 to 10,000 museum stores across the country, some as small as a shelf in the corner of the ranger's cabin at a national park and some as large as The Metropolitan Museum of Art's shop which sprawls over three levels and has outposts around the world. The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums; most have their own store.

Connecticut has a number of these artsy retail destinations. Some are well-known: the gift shop at the Wadsworth, Mark Twain House and the shop at the Noah Webster House. Some are more off the beaten path: the Wings 'n' Things Gift Shop in the New England Air Museum out by Bradley Field (astronaut ice cream makes a great stocking stuffer), the New England Carousel Museum gift shop in Bristol, the American Clock & Watch Museum shop, also in Bristol, and The Submarine Force Museum gift shop in Groton.

Several cultural institutions have online gift shops, so if you can't fit in a visit, you can order from home.

In most cases, you won't pay an admission fee to visit a museum store. You also don't pay sales tax — a not-so-insignificant savings here in the Nutmeg State.

"Merchandise tied to a museum's mission is exempt from sales tax," notes Whitney.

Most stores offer special discounts to members. Around this time of year, some have special shopping days with refreshments, entertainment and additional savings.

"No pushing and shoving, no blockbuster specials, just a really lovely shopping experience," says Peters.

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