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Baltimore’s still got brand: The hope-filled lessons of the sold-out, $125 souvenir | COMMENTARY

The renovated Domino Sugars sign was officially relighted on the Fourth of July, accompanied by fireworks and celebratory light displays after a four-month, $2 million restoration. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
The renovated Domino Sugars sign was officially relighted on the Fourth of July, accompanied by fireworks and celebratory light displays after a four-month, $2 million restoration. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Amid the usual gloomy reports of shootings and overdoses, ATM thefts and pandemic-related challenges facing schools, one easily overlooked item stood out this past week: The Baltimore Museum of Industry, the city’s 40-year-old paean to its blue collar heritage, decided to branch out into the memorabilia business — with an entirely appropriate twist. With a chunk of the old neon Domino Sugars sign in their possession thanks to a recent renovation, museum officials decided to sell small medallions crafted from the scrapped letter “D.” The bits of worn, 70-year-old metal had no intrinsic value, of course. They represented only the opportunity to both support the museum and to possess a physical reminder of a waterfront icon. So, what happened next?

To suggest they sold like hotcakes is no exaggeration, as if they were on top of everyone’s holiday gift list. They sold like Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983 or Talking Barney in 1992. Not initially: The museum’s 350 medallion inventory was still robust after two months of sales, when — and this might be a key marketing strategy — a spokeswoman was quoted in this newspaper announcing that just 175 remained. Within hours, they were sold out. Demand was so high that the museum staff started a waitlist in case more become available at a later date.

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And here’s the real clincher. What do you think people paid for those half-dollar-sized disks? $5? $10? $15 for two? Nope. The museum sold each and every one of them for $125 a pop. Oh, buyers also got a nice little foam-lined box and protective sleeve, like it was a rare coin, but still, that’s two and one-half times the estimated $46.90 cost of Thanksgiving dinner ingredients for 10 last year, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Now, granted, some may see this as a one-time novelty. Stranger things have suddenly become collectible. In a social media-driven world, you can become a well-paid sensation overnight just by lip-synching for 10 seconds on TikTok. Yet there’s clearly something else at work. People don’t pay $125 to own a piece of something they hold in disdain. There’s a deep and abiding affection for Baltimore, and not just the Museum of Industry (as worthwhile as that attraction on Key Highway may be) or Domino Sugar.

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Is part of that nostalgia? Absolutely. Centuries of history, from the defense of Fort McHenry to the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, are part of our selling points. There’s no shame in that. You can make a pretty great community with enough money, but you can’t give it 292 years of meaningful history. We’ve got that, and while it’s not always pretty (there’s slavery, Confederate sympathizing, public corruption, a Know-Nothing Riot and, in more recent years, a Gun Trace Task Force and Freddie Gray to consider, too), it’s uniquely ours. Take that, all you other unincorporated outposts where farming and watching the grass grow are a bigger part of your past.

There’s a reason why people traveling abroad from Central Maryland tend to identify themselves as coming from Baltimore and not the suburbs. We are the brand. For better or worse, Baltimore is at the heart of Maryland. It always has been. And maybe, just maybe, it always will be.

That’s a lot to extrapolate from 350 metal disks, we know. And that’s not to soft-pedal the enormous problems facing this city. They are still big. They are still divisive. They are still costly. But let us not lose sight of how many people hold Baltimore close to their hearts. We are a city worth fighting for. On the street corners. In the classroom. In the halls of the State House. And who knows? If things get bad, we can always chop up something else — a Fort McHenry flag, Shot Tower or maybe chunks of the Washington Monument — and put it on the market.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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