Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Vatican Vault

Reading the accusations swirling around the Pope, I’m reminded yet again of the wisdom of the old saying Timing is everything. Had the present controversy raged in the spring of 1985, when I opened the first papal supplies store in northern California's Sonoma County, I can’t imagine that it would have been the success it has been.

The hardest part in the beginning was choosing a name. My first wife insisted that we’d be bankrupt in six months if we went with anything other than The Pallium Place. I, though, asserted that not even most devout Catholics would know pallium as the name of the circular two-inch-wide band, with pendants hanging from both the front and back, that His Holiness wears around his neck, breast and shoulders. One of my investors really liked Things of the Fisherman, a pun on The Ring of the Fisherman, which His Holiness wears to pay homage to Saint Peter, who was of course fisherman by trade. My great fear was that we’d attract the whole reels-'n'-rods crowd. Another investor thought we should stick with something tasteful and descriptive like Sonoma County Papal Supplies, but in my mind that lacked catchiness and aplomb. I decided to go with The Vatican Vault.

The weekend of our grand opening we had a little combo performing the biggest hits of Madonna (a Catholic school product) in the parking lot, around the periphery of which we’d set up branded portable confession booths. There were free Know Your Saints coloring books for the kiddies, and for the grownups communion wafers and sacramental wine, which we served in souvenir cups bearing the store’s name, address, and telephone number on one "side", and the coat of arms of the Holy See and Vatican City 180 degrees around. Some of the faculty of Our Lady of Eternal Torment did face-painting. In those days, there wasn’t really such a thing as an email address, except maybe for the very earliest early adaptors, most of whom were of course atheists.

Our first big break was getting a terrific deal on a lot of yarmulkes ordered by a Jewish synagogue down in Marin County that had gone morally bankrupt before they could take delivery on the little skullcaps. We were able to sell them — because no one can really tell the difference — as zucchettos (pileoluses in Latin), as worn by Roman Catholic clerics.

Our clientele came mainly from one of two groups. On the one hand, there were casual or even lapsed Catholics seeking papal kitsch to display ironically in their homes. We sold them T-shirts, key chains, and refrigerator magnets. But it was the great popularity among the other half of our clientele — delusional schizophrenics who believed they in fact were His Holiness — of high-markup items that put me behind the wheel of my first Mercedes-Benz. I'm speaking, of course, of the sedia gestatoria — the richly-adorned, silk-covered portable throne on which the Pope is carried on the shoulders of a dozen red-uniformed footmen (palafrenieri) — and of the papal pastoral staff, which depicts a modern rendition of the crucified Christ, his arms fixed to a crossbar curved in the manner of an Eastern crozier.

In 1986, the year after we opened, Run-DMC put hip hop on the cultural map, and we sold to rappers a lot of red cappello romanos, hats with wide, circular brims and rounded rims of the sort favored by Catholic clergy. One of our competitors — it didn’t take long for at least half a dozen rival papal supply shops to spring up in the face of our great success — put himself out of business ordering a few dozen black cappellos lacking the gold cords of His Holiness’s. D’oh! Hey, you’re not going to get ahead in the papal supplies game being inattentive, pal.

No comments:

Post a Comment