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Take a Woolly Mammoth Home This Christmas : Business: Dinosaur tree ornaments are just some of the offbeat and unusual items for sale at museum shops. Just like Sears and the Broadway, these stores depend on holiday buyers to boost their annual revenues.

December 03, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

'Tis the season to be shopping, and the Westside's museum shops, like their less cultured cousins, the department stores, have stocked up for the holidays.

The three stores in the 5800 and 5900 blocks of Wilshire Boulevard are filled with merchandise calculated to catch the eye of both the visitor who drops in after touring the exhibits and the loyal patron who knows museum shops to be a source for beautiful, educational and unusual gifts, cards and wrapping papers.

For some, browsing the museum shops is the best part of a trip to Los Angeles. "I live in Orange County, but when I come up I always make it a point to visit the museum shops and find new things," Miriam Rosen of Fullerton said in the store of the Craft and Folk Art Museum at the corner of Wilshire and Curson. Rosen likes the stores because they carry offbeat merchandise. Her daughter Evy said she likes them, too, but thinks their prices are too high.

Just like Sears and the Broadway, the museum stores depend on holiday buyers to boost their annual revenues. How well the stores do in the critical gift-buying weeks before Hanukkah and Christmas will be a major factor in how much money they are able to hand over to their parent institutions.

And so the shops are ready. The Craft and Folk Art Museum store has hand-made Santas as well as Christmas tree lights shaped like chili peppers.

Across the street at the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Hancock Park, the fossil-minded shopper can pick up a woolly mammoth ornament to hang on the Christmas tree. And at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next door, the merchandise appropriate for gift-giving includes blown Venetian glass that looks like pieces of cellophane-wrapped hard candy.

"Ninety percent of our profit is made in the holiday season," said Lorraine Trippett, business manager of the craft museum.

In a typical year, she said, the shop contributes between $30,000 and $60,000 to the museum, about 10% of its operating budget. But this year has been anything but typical for the institution. The museum shop was closed over the summer, as was the museum itself. Construction gets under way on new quarters, scheduled to open in 1992. The craft museum recently opened an exhibit in temporary space on the fourth floor of the Wilshire/Fairfax May Co., and the shop reopened Nov. 21 in a former real-estate office.

This year, Trippett said, the shop will do well to break even. But it is more important than ever as an embodiment of the values of the museum. For the shop, she explained, "We select things that are in the marketplace now that are the kinds of things that are in our museum and that we might show. Particularly at this time, it is a way for us to keep our face before the public."

Among the one-of-a-kind pieces in the shop is a wall hanging done in patchwork and embroidery ($600) that tells a story in the traditional style of the Hmong people of Vietnam by artist See Lee, who now lives in Long Beach. Another of Lee's hangings is in the museum's permanent collection.

According to shop manager Carol Day, most of the merchandise is much less pricey. Her favorites this year include fanciful lizards, turtles and spider-like creatures made of acrylic polymer by Los Angeles artist Dan Kuffel. The simplest are $18.

Doll collectors regularly come by, Day said, and this year the shop has increased its offerings for them. On hand are Victorian-looking Santas and other Christmas dolls by Ruth De Nicola ($125-$225), and clay dolls with animal faces and Asian-style clothing by Carol Krieger of Santa Barbara ($100). The shop also carries Krieger's one-of-a-kind story dolls ($125-$225).

Day said the store has upped its number of art books ("The Spirit of Folk Art" is selling well at $60). It has dozens of traditional African, Mexican and Indonesian masks--made to sell but not reproductions--for $60 to $350. It is also carrying unusually shaped tea sets and other work by Australian ceramic artist Jiri Bures. His cookie jar in the form of a spotted leopard with camel-like humps is $110.

Recognizing the current craze for things Southwestern, the shop has strings of red-pepper Christmas tree lights ($15) and chili pepper ornaments made of glass ($5.50). Artist Tom Freese of Santa Fe made the painted wooden pins featuring the ubiquitous Southwestern snake ($12-$18).

According to Patricia Caspary, president of the 1,400-member Museum Store Assn., museum shops are traditionally expected to carry merchandise that "supports the museum experience and enhances visitors' understanding of the institution." (Caspary manages the store at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach.)

That mission presents a problem for the shop at the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits. The museum houses the world's largest collection of Ice Age fossils. What it doesn't house are dinosaur bones. The dinosaur was extinct millennia before mastodons and saber-toothed cats began to get stuck in the asphalt.

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