The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles deals in a sobering ethnic history — including, most notoriously, the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans.
“So how do you make that sexy for shoppers?” asked Maria Kwong, director of Retail Enterprises, who oversees the museum’s gift shop. “How do you make people want to come into the store?”
Her answer: Embrace the museum’s civil liberties mission head-on, with bold, graphic souvenirs that address — rather than shy away from — the complicated Japanese-American story. 

Maria Kwong, director of Retail Enterprises, The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The store embraces the museum’s civil liberties mission head-on with its merchandise. Photo by Gary van der Steur.


The shop’s top souvenir is a reproduction of a wartime poster from the museum’s collection; it instructs Americans of Japanese ancestry to report for internment. “That has been a really good seller for us,” Kwong observed. A coordinating T-shirt, with quotations relating to the abrogation of civil rights, “is a statement,” she added. “These days, it’s actually pretty relevant. It’s a conversation starter.”
Not all the merchandise is so thematically weighty. Kwong said customers love mementos from a recent exhibition on Hello Kitty, the Japanese novelty brand, which designed an exclusive logo for the show. Favorite gifts include a kimono-wearing Hello Kitty plush doll, tote bags, coin purses, pins and other keepsakes, all emblazoned with the logo.
Kwong said the museum’s part-time staff bonds over a sense of shared mission, as well as all-you-can-eat sashimi potlucks. “We’re always working so closely together, and we feed them, a lot!” she laughed. 

A display of George Takei merchandise at The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Highly artistic arrangements grouped by theme are a hallmark of the store. Photo by Gary van der Steur.


Indeed, perhaps the biggest retail challenge for the museum is how to display its wares in the quirky space, which is round and mostly glass. Kwong’s team has nearly 1,000 square feet to work with, but struggled to deal with sunlight fading the merchandise until they hit on the solution — a type of window tinting that blocked rays while still allowing guests to see in and out.
As for the lack of 90-degree angles, the staff compensates by embracing the aesthetic favored by department stores in Japan: highly artistic arrangements grouped by theme.
A “visual feast” is how Store Manager and Buyer Justine Matteis described the 1,500-square-foot gift shop at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn. “People come in and say wow!” she said. “The locals love this store.” The gift shop showcases a selection of housewares — ceramics, glassware, water bottles and the like — as well as women’s accessories, gems and minerals, a large stationery section, and children’s puzzles and gifts. 

Alisa Pacheco. guest services and retail coordinator, and Tajay Pearce, museum greeter and floor assistant, of the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The museum store takes pride in being child friendly.


With an appealing mix of hostess gifts and inexpensive yet distinctive wares, the store is a popular destination in and of itself, Matteis said. “We have beautiful greeting cards that are just $3,” she noted. “Our jewelry runs the gamut, from super modern to traditional, and it’s all very affordable.” The hands-down customer favorite, she added, is a line of accordion pleated scarves in varying patterns, including houndstooth, geometric shapes, and trendy floral-over-stripe prints. “They’re beautiful and they’re at a great price point, just $20,” Matteis said. For children, the favorites are stuffed animals from Jellycat, which Matteis calls “a fun, fluffy, very creative and magical line.”
It’s a lot of merchandise to keep track of, so after completing a store inventory, employees go out to lunch together, Matteis said. Holiday and other museum events “make it fun here,” she added. “We have a good time.”

At The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the shop’s top souvenir is a reproduction of a wartime poster from the museum’s collection; it instructs Americans of Japanese ancestry to report for internment. Coordinating T-shirts are also available. Photo by Gary van der Steur.


The guest services staff at the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., takes pride in being child friendly and helping youthful visitors pick out souvenirs, said Gift Shop Manager Josephine Dacosta. “We are all very hands-on,” she said. The friendly vibe is enhanced by a retail space by the front desk in a highly visible area, Dacosta added.
“Kids come right to it,” the manager said. “We’ve got gifts up front, with displays right at children’s eye level.” 
The store further tempts with display models of popular toys, nearly all of which have wheels: toy trains, race cars, fire trucks. “Our clientele likes things that make sound and things that move,” Dacosta explained. She said the Automoblox line from Playmonster is a customer favorite.

Bruce Museum Store Associate Sandy Heyd, left, with Store Manager Justine Matteis. The Greenwich, Conn., store is loved by locals, according to Matteis.


At the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, best-selling merchandise varies by season, said Store Manager Jazmin Sandoval. In October, sugar skull mementos for Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead Holiday, were flying off the shelves. Stickers, key chains, T-shirts and other classic souvenirs are perennially popular, Sandoval added.
The store strives to create a Mexican atmosphere throughout, from the hand-woven baskets that display smaller items near the register, to traditional Mexican toys and crafts. Folk art imported from Mexico is especially popular among shoppers. “Those are really special, one-of-a-kind, hand selected items,” Sandoval said. Her staff meets frequently to consider the seasonal mix; incentives, like gift cards to employees who solicit more donations, “go a real long way” toward keeping up morale, Sandoval noted.
The gift shop is barely a year old at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., but already its curated selection of art-related items is resonating with guests. “Our patrons love to take home a piece of the exhibitions,” said Store Manager Emily Devoe of the top selling category, museum catalogues and books. 

Director of Retail Jazmin Sandoval, and Dora Becerra, Raquel Juarez, Maria De Jesus Salinas, and Yoselyne Leon, gift shop assistants, of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Ill. Best-selling merchandise varies by the season, Sandoval said.


Perhaps surprisingly, a close runner-up in sales is a line of collapsible, reusable straws from the Sux Straws brand. The straws arguably have nothing to do with art, but appeal for their sustainability and convenient travel case. “People want to be environmentally conscious,” Devoe suggested. “We’ve restocked these many times.” Straws also fit well — literally — in the diminutive Aldrich retail space, which occupies a mix of shelves and pedestal fixtures in a section of the museum lobby. “We’re still figuring out the best display methods,” Devoe said.


“ ‘Harmony Hammond.’ It’s the first hardbound, scholarly book from the first museum survey show of this artist, a five-decade career retrospective.” – Emily Devoe, store manager, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Conn.


Getting a Read on Book Sales
What Is Your Top-Selling Book and Why?

A best-selling book for the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., is “The History of the Greenwich Waterfront.” The book is shown here on display in October, 2019.

“ ‘The History of the Greenwich Waterfront,’ we’re almost on the waterfront here at the museum, and Greenwich has a lot of coastline.” – Justine Matteis, store manager and buyer, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Conn.
“ ‘Perseverance,’ a catalog from our 2014 show about Japanese tattoo art. Tattoos are not very popular in Japan; the book features artists who work in the United States, and perpetuate traditional Japanese art through tattoos.” – Maria Kwong, director of Retail Enterprises, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, Calif.
“Our children’s books all do well. Most are bilingual English-Spanish, which appeals to our audience.” – Jazmin Sandoval, store manager, The National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, Ill.
“Board books do best, because our target customer is mostly toddlers and preschoolers.” – Josephine Dacosta, gift shop manager, Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“ ‘Harmony Hammond.’ It’s the first hardbound, scholarly book from the first museum survey show of this artist, a five-decade career retrospective.” – Emily Devoe, store manager, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Conn.