WASHINGTON -- In the packed gift shop at the Central Intelligence Agency, as holiday music tinkles, employees jostle for a peek at the $175 gold CIA logo earrings. They eye the Christmas ornaments decorated with the faces of former agency directors, and gently finger the champagne flutes with the agency's famous eagle-faced emblem in gold filigree.
They are on a mission. A mission to shop.
As they do every year, the hordes have descended on the government's gift shops. The booty, emblazoned with federal logos and steeped in patriotic themes, is a favorite of the Washington crowd. Every holiday, these shoppers are moved to give the gift of government.
Goods from these stores have cachet not because of what they are, but where they come from -- the remote corners of government buildings that are largely off-limits to the rest of the world. In most cases, only insiders with the right federal IDs can indulge.
And they do, whether they are buying the $32 Camp David towel set or the $9.50 FBI handcuff case, the $95 Air Force One models or the $12 Koala bears in Secret Service T-shirts.
But, really, who wants to shop in the bowels of the bureaucracy?
For some people, it seems, anything beats the mall. Consider the rush at the CIA.
Staff members have made this the shop's best sales year yet. Only CIA employees and their guests can shop there, for security reasons. They know to use their purchases with discretion.
"You wouldn't want to get caught with this stuff when you're crossing a border," says Anya Guilsher, a former undercover agent who served overseas before taking a public affairs job two months ago. Still, even this veteran can't resist the shop's charms.
"Look at this -- isn't it adorable?" she asks, picking up an "Agent in Training" baby bib in the gift shop. "Some of this stuff makes great stocking stuffers."
Nearby, a fellow staff member looks over the $170 bronze statue of Revolutionary War spy-hero Nathan Hale, engraved with his famous last line: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Inspirational to an agent used to dodging enemies at hostile checkpoints, perhaps, but does anybody's aunt really want a big Nathan Hale for Christmas?
Apparently so. At the CIA, daily holiday sales have nearly doubled, and store workers say the shop has reached a record total this year -- about $2.25 million.
The CIA store, like other government gift shops, is increasingly trying to modernize its inventory to boost sales. The goods are paid for with private dollars, and the proceeds go to employee charities and agency recreational activities, shop managers say.
Demand is high, in part, because of the mystique that surrounds these cloistered shops.
Case in point: the Camp David store. Most folks can't even locate the presidential hideaway in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, let alone get into its private gift shop. Dubbed the Shangri-La Lounge, it offers $80 bathrobes emblazoned with "Presidential Retreat -- Camp David" and the White House seal.
Other gifts include the $4 Camp David medallion, which is popular mainly because it proves one has visited the compound, or at least knows somebody else who has. But not everything is for sale. The shop's $13 Presidential Service Badge lapel pins, for example, are off limits to anyone who hasn't actually earned the commendation, Shangri-La salespeople say.
Such stores cater to insider chic. At the tiny Air Force One gift shop on the White House grounds, one can get outfitted to look like a flight buddy of President Clinton, with logo caps and polo shirts. In the Secret Service Shop nearby, luggage tags are available to any traveler hoping to cut a slightly intimidating figure on the road.
Intrigued? Tough. Nobody raids these stores uninvited, at least not many of them. Consider the effort it takes for an invited guest to buy a $3 coloring book from the FBI at its downtown Washington headquarters. That search for kitsch requires an appointment, an ID check, clearance through metal detectors, a guest badge and an escort.
Once in the FBI shop, however, there is no end to the potential damage someone with a credit card can do. Agents love junior G-man merchandise like the coloring book, which features pictures of an unhappy perpetrator getting arrested, booked and found guilty.
The goodies don't end there. FBI windbreakers are hot items -- not to mention tantalizingly similar to the ones real agents wear. Couldn't these impostor designs pose a security risk?
Bureau spokeswoman Debra Weierman, looking over a $49.95 jacket with "FBI" in bold letters on the chest, agrees they might. "I'm sure this is a concern for agents out in the field," she says. But, she adds, it's hard to imitate an FBI badge, and the shop doesn't sell any fakes.
Although this hardly seems to fit the bureau's tough-guy image, the FBI shop is big on jewelry, such as the $15 special agent lapel pin set depicting miniature service badges, $985 FBI pinky rings and $30 "Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity" cuff links.
When given the opportunity, even nonagents want a crack at this shop.
"We've had famous people in here -- John F. Kennedy Jr. came in one time," says Joan Gaffany, a manager at the FBI store. "He got some children's items. Paid cash."
Although few people know about the shops open to the public, a handful do accept outsiders.
NASA is one. Despite its drab entrance (a cryptic plaque outside the shop at the Washington headquarters reads "ID20"), the place is a bonanza for space nuts, with everything from a $7 space shuttle watch that makes rocket noises to a $210 crystal rock-cut space shuttle.
Greg Williams, who works in the Office of Mission to Planet Earth, says the shop has cross-over appeal for civilians. A newlywed, he even finds something for his wife: a sleeping shirt emblazoned with a launching rocket and the words, "Prepare for Lift Off."
"This might be good," he says. "Just the thing to go under the tree."
Pub Date: 12/22/97