This state's souvenirs suck. Why can't we Buy Mile High?

At Greetings From Colorado, a store on the A concourse of Denver International Airport, don't expect to find many actual Colorado greetings. Yes, there are cards from Leanin' Tree, the Boulder-based Western art emporium that Edward P. Trumble founded back in 1949; and gilded aspen-leaf jewelry created in this state; and bags filled with little pieces of candy made to look like rocks. But the gift bags of coffee are not packed in Colorado, the Elvis lunch boxes come from China, and the T-shirt that proudly pronounces "Denver since 1861" — missing the city's 1858 start by three years — is from Mexico.

Here, by the way, is how Avila, the corporate owner of that store, describes it: "a specialty theme shop celebrating the icons of Colorado in a design reminiscent of the colorful Victorian days. The DIA customer will enjoy this step out of the fast pace of the airport environment into an entertaining shopping space abundant with merchandise exclusively planned for this concept...that illustrate a sense of place that is thoroughly Colorado." Did I mention the Elvis lunch boxes? Although the King certainly spent time in Colorado, I don't think he ever stuffed a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich from the Colorado Mine Company in one of these. And I doubt the shops in those "colorful Victorian days" featured the same cornucopia of plastic crap.

Next door to Greetings From Colorado, though, a branch of the Denver ChopHouse — a franchise of the popular, homegrown restaurant — has finally opened. It's part of a new push at the airport to give people more of a feel for this state, a "sense of place," says DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon. But we could do so much more. And as Colorado starts its 150th-anniversary celebration of the Rush to the Rockies, there's new gold to mine: at a store filled with items actually created here.

These Mile High Buy (or Buy Mile High) spots could stock crafty Colorado inventions (the beer-bottle-holding belt buckle, for example), take-away food gifts (if Seattle can peddle salmon, we can send travelers home with Colorado jerky rather than that shoe leather from Texas or California or Montana), books by local authors, pieces by area artists, even T-shirts with the correct date of Denver's founding. And if the shops were located on the concourses, well past the security checkpoints, they could even sell to-go growlers and cans of Colorado's most liquid asset: its microbrews. New Belgium, Rock Bottom and the Denver ChopHouse already have outlets at the airport. Why not let travelers take home a real taste of Colorado?

Today, DIA; tomorrow, the 16th Street Mall. The mall, which turned 25 in 2007, is touted as the most successful pedestrian mall in America — if you don't happen to want to shop. With the exception of the Denver Pavilions, now undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation courtesy of the Gart family, and the odd (and I mean odd) Dress Barn or Nike store or Ross Dress for Less, the mall is a vast shopping wasteland until you get to the end of the line at the Tattered Cover, or veer off at Larimer Square. And the half-dozen souvenir stores all sell souvenirs you could find anywhere on the planet.

Facing the restored Fontius building, a stunning project that houses the corporate offices of Sage Hospitality and will put an Ink! coffee outlet on the mall — to counter the seven (and counting) Starbucks — is Only in Colorado, a souvenir store in the definitely not-restored Cottrell's whose windows are filled with howling coyotes and dream catchers and a sculpture of an American eagle — made in China. And although Only in Colorado actually has a display of Colorado books, and Colorado jerky, and Colorado jellies, and Colorado Moose Poop candy, beyond that, it's the same old crap. And not even Victorian crap. The "got beer?" hat is from China. The moose hat is from China.

The Downtown Denver Partnership is currently collecting suggestions for the mall's next 25 years (at www.downtowndenver.com), and will hold a public meeting on May 20 to review alternatives. Why not Buy Mile High?

Sure, it will take some effort to sort through the possible wares for a Colorado-centric shop, but compiling an inventory of our homegrown businesses and talents might be a good use of time in these tough times. Particularly if it results in the creators collecting some cash even as Denver pushes its creative reputation far beyond city limits.

All the way to China.

 
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