How to Browse the World’s Largest Gift Shop

by Kate Imbach

photographs by Geoffrey Ellis

The world’s largest gift shop has ten million items for sale and occupies 40,0000 square feet on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue, where the grandeur of the strip dwindles to empty lots, an IHOP and a tattoo parlor.

Tourists lumbered through Bonanza Gifts, examining dusty shot glasses, mood jewelry and casino playing cards with dead-eyed intensity. A man considering buckets of colored dice — $1 for six pair with a sign clarifying: YES THAT IS 12 DICE — scratched his chin and cocked his head. He was from somewhere else, too pale for the desert, white all over, from his hair to the flesh of his jowls. He wore a black Millennium Falcon schematic t-shirt. He looked something like a die himself. He settled, after weighing them all in his hand, on six purple, six green.

Down the aisle, a woman picked up a flimsy handbag printed with LAS VEGAS in enormous gold block letters and turned it over carefully in her hands as if it were a fragile, breakable thing.

“No, I don’t think Nicole will like this,” she said to her husband. They both frowned hard and turned to the coin purses.

When I was little my dad usually brought me back souvenirs from business trips. I remember a gold cable car on a key ring, running its motionless wheels over the pads of my fingers when I was too young to place San Francisco on a map. I liked this type of hard evidence, the tiny symbols that I was in his mind when he was gone. When he forgot to bring me something, or just went to Philadelphia again — and how many Liberty Bell key chains did a seven-year-old need? — I felt the disappointment of an invisible girl waving her arms in a crowd.

Traveling requires leaving people behind. It’s part of the deal. In Bonanza that day they hemmed and hawed over those cheap, useless things, because it’s important to get the indication of remembering someone right, even when it’s a just key chain for a child too young to lock doors.

The tourists, of course, also shopped for themselves. In front of a display of magnets a man in a Zion National Park Shirt said to no one, or maybe just to the magnets, “I love magnets.”

A guy in a Niagara Falls t-shirt held around an upside down sombrero full of shot glasses. A woman in a Yosemite t-shirt carried around a pink Las Vegas neck pillow and travel coffee mug looking at things like she wasn’t done, like she needed to find something else to buy.

They were a certain kind of traveler, the kind that prowls around gift shops across America, turning over little things in their hands, feeling the weight of them, checking prices and making calculations. Someday they would wear Las Vegas t-shirts somewhere else, off in some new place, declaring that they have been to others.

The ten million souvenirs at Bonanza seemed like tourism artifacts from the age of slideshows and smoking on airplanes, back when the currency of travel was physical, when they only way to announce that you’d been away and seen other places was to display little things on desks and shelves, corked up vials of sand from foreign beaches and glitter snow globes.

I think we still need gift shops, despite our braggadocious digital trails and fancy geotags. Instagram runs hotter than any souvenir can but it freezes in an instant. It buries all of the evidence of our wanderlust under a pile of more interesting places and nicer photos.

Hard goods live on forever. When souvenirs survive a vacation it kicks and screams. The trip takes much longer to die.

At Bonanza they know that we have all different types waiting for us at home. Virgins, whores, the rich, the poor. There were t-shirts for everyone. “Number 1 Bitch,” “#Bitch,” “Not Your Bitch,” “I Support Single Moms” (with an illustration of a stripper) and “Need Money $$ Bad.” Half of the ten million items must have been shot glasses; many were shaped like boobs and butts. The “High Roller” shot glass cost $.99.

“There’s lots of gross stuff here,” said a chubby little woman with unwashed hair to her chubby little husband, looking over a rack of brown lumps of plastic shaped like poop hanging from key rings.

Everyone was startled to walk down an aisle of stuffed animals when a motion-activated parrot squawked, “Hey baby, show us your tits!” A group of three seventy year-old men laughed so hard at this that they were all simultaneously sent into those laugh-coughing fits, like a chemical weapon had been released into the novelty aisle.

Later I saw one of these men as he was looking up at a dream catcher the size of a tractor tire with white and brown feathers dangling from strings of suede.

“I like this kind of stuff. But I don’t know what I would do with it. Ann wouldn’t let me hang it up,” he said to his friend. They both nodded sadly at the beauty of the thing.

A little girl ran her fingers over a magnet, a piece of clear pink plastic in the shape of a gem. She looked up at her father.

“Daddy,” she said. “Look at this diamond.”

Pretty souvenirs will always be treasures to little girls.


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