The Papal Visit : Sidewalk Pope-Pourri Salesmen Failed to Do a Heavenly Business

Times Staff Writer

After reading countless stories about the marketing of papal mementos, Pete Lane, a Los Angeles plumber, decided to take the plunge himself.

But by morning's end Tuesday, Lane had taken a financial bath instead.

"Believe me, I'd rather be working on a good toilet right now," Lane, 51, lamented, as he surveyed his barely shrunken stock of Pope John Paul II pennants. "I'm down the drain."

Lane, along with his four sons, had set up shop on Broadway at 2nd Street shortly after midnight, eagerly prepared to hawk the 40,000 paper banners that he had designed and paid $12,000 to print.

But even after lowering his price to two for $1--down from $3 each--Lane managed to sell fewer than 1,500 pennants and took in less than $1,000 before quitting shortly before noon.

Not all vendors did as poorly as the mustachioed Lane, a first-time entrepreneur. But even the most experienced merchandisers--who are following the Pope as he hopscotches across America--reported sluggish sales along the downtown Los Angeles parade route.

"It's not like a Superbowl or World Series or something when the whole town really gets revved up," declared Gary MacNeal, 33, of Detroit, who employed a six-man crew of vendors. "We should hopefully make a few dollars when it's over. . . . But you don't get rich."

For the most part, downtown vendors, who were unlicensed by the church but unhassled by authorities, dispensed simple souvenirs such as flags, buttons and pennants, all for $3 or less. Nowhere in sight were such pricey, highly publicized items as Pope-shaped "Let Us Spray" lawn sprinklers, John Paul masks or Pope-on-a-rope soap.

There were, however, the ubiquitous, big-event T-shirts, including one featuring the pontiff in sunglasses and waving a peace sign. It was available at a booth topped by a poster reading "Holy Shirts, $10."

Merchants blamed their sales problems on heavy competition among vendors and on relatively sparse crowds caused, at least in part, by the 7.2-mile length of the parade route.

"It's such a long parade. That kills everything," said the exhausted and frustrated Lane, who spent hours frantically pacing up and down a three-block section of Broadway, his tennis shoes unlaced, barking "2 for $1, 2 for $1, get 'em while they last."

It was not exactly what he and his sons--ranging in age from 16 to 21--had in mind as they spent four days attaching holders to the 19-by-10-inch paper pennants, which featured photos of the Pope and the inside of the Vatican.

At mid-morning, when Lane desperately lowered his prices to the cheapest in the area, sales increased perceptibly.

"We waited till a real deal came by," explained one purchaser, Veronica Beas, 23, of Los Angeles, who said she liked Lane's pennants better than such items as "I Was Blessed" T-shirts--on which she claimed the silk-screen caricature "looked more like Johnny Carson than the Pope."

Still, Lane, who refused to slow down until the crowd dissipated (he even barked "Go Get 'em Pope, 2 for $1" as the pontiff sped by shortly after 11 a.m.), figured he must sell another 20,000 more pennants to break even.

Making matters worse, son Steve, 16, had come down with laryngitis and the flatbed on which the pennants were stored wound up with a flat tire.

"I just tried to take a shot, a gamble," reflected Lane, before departing. "I made a mistake, I should have spread the boys out more along the route."

But not all was bad with the world, Lane added.

"We saw the Pope--he's just a man, but he's as close as one can get to God."

And there's always hope, Lane concluded.

"We're going to get a couple hours of sleep and then go to the Coliseum (where a papal Mass was scheduled). I have to keep trying . . . or I'm going to have to wallpaper my house with the pennants."

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