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Stores Sell 'Recovery' Goods for Shoppers on Road to Sobriety : Merchandising: Boutiques cater to members of AA and similar programs. There are rewards--but little profit.

October 23, 1995|MARY MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Daniel, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, recently spent about an hour at the Twelve-n-Twelve store in West Los Angeles looking for just the right gift to give a friend who has been sober for a year.

"Being sober is a celebration," said Daniel, who stopped drinking six years ago. "Although I was alive before I got clean and sober, I wasn't really able to enjoy life."

The fervor of AA members has given rise to independent gift boutiques--such as Twelve-n-Twelve--that carry "recovery" merchandise designed for members of 12-step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. Three of these 12-step stores--which are not sanctioned or supported by Alcoholics Anonymous--have opened on the Westside in the past few years.

The lion's share of local customers are the 250,000 AA members who live in Southern California, which is double the number 10 years ago, according to estimates supplied by the organization. Other shoppers include members of AA spinoff groups--Narcotics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous and the like.

Recovery items provide a common bond among followers within each of these programs.

"It's like if you were on a sinking ship and you were one of [the] few survivors--you'd always have a bond with those people because you know you escaped certain death," Daniel said. "It's a normal way to feel when you escape a grave situation."

AA medallions, inscribed with numbers reflecting the years or months a person has been sober, are top-sellers at most recovery shops. So, too, are mugs decorated with the AA logo--a triangle inside a circle. Bumper stickers, greeting cards and inspirational books are also standard fare.

But, despite the growing numbers of AA members, such small-ticket items do not translate into large profits. Keate Weaver, who opened Twelve-n-Twelve in 1992, said she is $75,000 in debt.

Serving coffee saved Language of the Heart, a funky coffee shop in Santa Monica that features recovery items. In its earliest days, Language of the Heart was dedicated to 12-step merchandise. "I'm finally making money, but it's still not as good as I thought it would be," said owner Marty Steckdaub. "But if I didn't start selling coffee, I would have gone out of business a long time ago."

While AA members are the lifeblood of 12-step stores, the organization takes a hands-off approach to those who merchandise the 60-year-old program. The guidelines of AA prohibit the organization from getting involved with commercial ventures, explained Art C., a spokesman for AA in Los Angeles who asked to remain anonymous, in keeping with the group's tradition.

AA works hard, though not entirely successfully, to separate itself from the merchandise sold by 12-step stores. In 1988, bad blood flowed between AA and some suppliers of recovery items when the organization asked manufacturers to stop selling trinkets adorned with AA's logo.

Neither the logo nor the organization's well-known name is copyrighted, and many manufacturers refused to back down. AA eventually acquiesced, but the organization actively discourages vendors from using its name, logo or double-A acronym.

"We don't want to take a militant position on this . . . we'd rather have somebody misrepresent themselves if they can reach an alcoholic in need of help," Art C. said.

That's Weaver's philosophy, too. She considers the selling of recovery merchandise to be more of a spiritual calling than a dog-eat-dog business.

AA teaches its followers to reach out to others, Weaver points out. "You never know who you're going to help," she said. "It's all about creating hope. If you create hope in someone, you may create a willingness to change."

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