New York – Bobblehead dolls, cheese, beers, pizza boxes ... if you can dream it, U.S. companies have probably worked the pope into it.
The entrepreneurial spirit has overcome Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia in advance of the Catholic World Meeting of Families, when more than one million people are expected to see the pope.
“[Philadelphia is] a city with a lot of love, and we are spreading it the best we can,” said Debby Fireman, who created the Pope Toaster, which allows you to toast the image of Pope Francis onto bread. “It is a crazy, exciting time to be in Philadelphia.”
In the City of Brotherly Love, these days you can buy a mozzarella bust of Pope Francis, a bobblehead doll of the pontiff sporting boxing gloves and holding a Philly cheesesteak and a soft pretzel, a plush doll in his likeness and T-shirts that combine Francis with other beloved Philly icons like Rocky Balboa, Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture and baseball’s Phillies.
In New York City, there is pope kitsch on sale but it's more subdued. Chiarelli’s, a Brooklyn-based store that sells church supplies and gifts, has a modest online selection of mugs, prayer cards and banners (also available in Spanish) that acknowledge Francis’ stop in New York City.
Why has New York, generally a capitalist's dream, failed to match Philadelphia’s papal fever?
“From what I heard from other people, it was basically because the pope is having a big ceremony in Philadelphia, and he will be there for longer,” Sal Licata, Chiarelli's sales manager, told FNL.
Licata explained that churches are the store’s main client base and a few have expressed interest in papal items, although he didn’t give numbers to back up that claim.
While Philadelphia’s diocese announced that Aramark would be its main vendor of papal visit paraphernalia, the New York archdiocese hasn't broached the topic. A spokesperson who said a press release would come later did not say what the products might be or whether they would offer toast or cheese — or, in Fireman’s dream world, a Holy Grilled Cheese. (Fireman toyed with the notion but found it impossible to pull off because papal cheese makers were only offering three-dimensional busts of the pope’s likeness, not slices.)
Others are stepping up their papal game. Redbubble.com has hundreds of pope items that always do well, according to a marketing officer, but for this visit they’ve added commemorative items such as duvet covers. Though they have items specific to Washington and New York, Philadelphia products have sold best, according to a marketing officer, though that may be due in part to a home field advantage. The artists designing the works are based in Pennsylvania.
The folks at Catholictothemax.com and its parent company, religious product manufacturer Nelson Fine Art and Gifts, have been through a number of papal visits.
Kevin Nelles, the company’s marketing director, told FNL that historically it's the more universal items that sell best. This year, one such item became a surprise best seller: the life-sized cutout of the pontiff. The item began as a promotional item for the company, sporadically used in churches or conventions, but lately stores bought them for displays and consumers have even ordered the cutouts for themselves.
In New York, however, the archdiocese seems to be taking the papal message of simplicity quite literally. Take a look at the gift shops: New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral has a mere 16 items to commemorate the pope’s visit — mostly rosaries, mugs and a candle.
On the other hand, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception in Washington, has a pages of goods on its online store, including Pope Francis cologne (“inspired by the papacy”), magnets, holy water, T-shirts and 36 different books about His Holiness.
“Our clients in New York aren’t as bullish on the papal merchandise market,” Nelles said. “My gut tells me it’s because the events that Pope Francis is doing are more robust in D.C. and Philadelphia.”
Certainly Philadelphia is having a moment in the sun thanks in part to Pope Francis' visit.
After the pontiff leaves, the Dalai Lama comes, and next July, the Democrats will swoop in for their national convention. So the Philadelphia frenzy may continue for some time.
“I had someone request a Dalai Lama toast the other day,” Fireman said, adding that she plans to honor the request.
She won't commit to donkeys, though.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.