A recent lazy-afternoon stroll through Galveston left me marveling over the heaps and piles of merchandise that overflow the shelves of souvenir shops along Seawall Boulevard and the Strand.
The souvenir business is interesting, and if my afternoon browse is any indication, it hasn’t changed much over the decades. Asked about her top products, the proprietess of one shop acknowledged that tee shirts, coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, risqué shot glasses, refrigerator magnets and beach towels are her most dependable sellers. “They move a lot faster than my candles and iPod covers,” she said. “People like the high-end stuff, but once you get home you can’t tell the difference between the soap you bought here and soap you’d buy at Dillards. People want to prove they’ve been on The Island, not in a Houston department store. If you put “Galveston” on it, it’ll sell – that’s the name of the game.”
Shops do carry quality items that reflect Galveston’s life – there are books filled with Island history, chronicles of storms, photographs and tropical art – but most souvenirs are, to put it charitably, generic. They could be sold anywhere. There’s nothing unique about a Galveston kite or Galveston Koozie apart from the name. If you purchase a tee shirt emblazoned with the phrase Genuine Galveston Souvenir Tee Shirt it comes with a guarantee you’ll someday meet someone wearing a Genuine (Pick Your City) Souvenir Tee Shirt .
Even the sand dollars, sundials and lightning whelks filling the baskets by the cash registers are identical to those found in shops from Port Isabel to Key West. Shelling on Texas beaches is erratic at best, and no retailer would dare depend on local sources to stock the shelves. So, Wholesale-SeaShells-R-Us steps in, ready and able to supply the souvenir needs of an entire city.
In a sense, none of this really matters. Most visitors don’t care about authenticity, or worry if their purchases are unrelated to Galveston. At Murdoch’s Bathhouse they buy buckets of shells from the South Pacific, sort through fragile beauties from Florida or carry off huge Bahamian conchs and are happy to do so. The shells are pretty – much prettier than Texas shells – and they’re especially attractive in a lamp base. Still, it’s a little sad. The labels say “Goa”, “Panama” or “Australia”, not “Freeport” or “Port Bolivar”. The glass starfish are made in Italy, the bamboo wind chimes arrived from Indonesia and all those ashtrays, replica lighthouses and hibiscus-covered metal serving trays are stamped “Made in China”. It’s all part of the souvenir game.
I’ve been thinking about souvenirs since finding a box of felt pennants and colorful postcards tucked into a long-unopened cedar chest. Collected during family vacations, primarily in the 1950s, they suggest a Midwestern version of the Grand Tour. We visited Omaha and roamed the stockyards. We stared in awe at the giant shovels working the iron ore mines in Hibbing, Minnesota and made pilgrimage to South Dakota’s claim to fame, the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Digging a little deeper, I found souvenirs of travel through Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, with an occasional side jaunt into Colorado. For our place and time, we were traveling fools. Given a choice between staying and going, my father was gone, and we were the ones in tow, happy to share his obsessive quest to make “just one more mile”.
Strangely, I remember little of the places pictured on these newly-discovered cards. I know we were there – I’m looking at the evidence – but my knowledge is barren and poor. The pennants hang lifeless, the postcards are mute. They tell me nothing of the people or places they represent, and might as well belong to a stranger. I can admire them, making vague, off-handed remarks about “how much things have changed”, but they have no power to enliven memory or evoke emotion.
On the other hand, certain souvenirs collected during our travels continue to make me smile, despite having been discarded decades ago. For years I cherished a baked-potato-sized chunk of basalt, picked up from a shallow crevasse near the Continental Divide in Colorado.
Even in memory, that rock is more substantial than the physical objects piled before me on my table. “Seeing” the rock again, I smooth my hand over its black glossiness and feel its weight. I remember the amazement of July snow, and the pleasure my father took in being hit with an awkwardly-thrown snowball. I don’t need to see again the photograph which shows me seated on the sign to know we had stopped at Loveland Pass (11,990 feet), and I certainly don’t need a tape recording to hear my mother saying, “Don’t get too close to the edge.”
For years my baking-potato-basalt knocked around my room, a friendly reminder of a delightful trip. Fancier rocks we’d purchased from souvenir shops – rhodocrosite and feldspar, mica and quartz – managed to make it to school for a post-vacation “Show and Tell” session, but soon after they were relegated to a cigar box, where they first were forgotten and then disappeared.
The difference between my basalt and that box of mixed rocks is the difference between a keepsake and a souvenir. While it’s true the words “souvenir” and “keepsake” are used interchangeably, “keepsake” implies a richness of relationship and history often missing with “souvenir”. Both evoke memories, but a true keepsake goes further by incarnating memory, allowing it to take on weight and substance. Keepsakes are more than the thing itself – the postcard, the starfish or shell. Keepsakes are like windows opening into history, or like doorways leading to the past.
My handsome basalt, plucked from the ground by my own hand and doubly-cherished because of it, was a keepsake, a door opening into the joys of childhood. The lovely Southwestern tile at the top of this page is a keepsake, resonant with the voices of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, crisp as morning air stirring through windows on the High Road to Taos.
A clutch of silver bracelets obtained by barter along the trade routes, a copper basket complementing the red rocks of Abiquiu with its glow, a worn pair of leather work gloves, a hand-turned mesquite bowl or a tiny, fanciful cactus flower – each of these is a keepsake, a door into memory’s room which I can open or close at will.
Making the decision to open that door can be difficult. There’s no question we are busy people, absorbed in the present or obsessed with the future. Inattentive and distracted, sometimes easily swayed, we’re more than capable of confusing cheap and shoddy experience with the joys of a life well-lived. Eager for novelty and dismissive of the past, we can be easy targets for folks hoping to sell us a Genuine Human Souvenir Tee Shirt.
Unfortunately, one size never fits all – not in tee shirts, and not in life. We need to be enticed, cajoled and encouraged to stop browsing the shelves of ready-made memories and recognize the true treasures of our lives. Each of us is surrounded by keepsakes, singular bits of memory that are ours alone. Those keepsakes are both the door and the voice drawing us through that door, cacophonous and insistent or singing a solitary and wistful song. Clamoring for attention from the midst of the crowd or whispering down the corridors of an empty present, the voices beckon.
Open the door.
Fling wide the window.
Part the curtains of memory.
Dare to look.
Take time to listen.
Visible or invisible, intangible or weighty with the accretions of time, a past you’ve once held in your hand is a past that can open your heart. We need to keep those memories close, for the sake of our humanity.