Originally created 02/11/02

Pin-trading loses luster



SALT LAKE CITY - It seems that enough horror stories were swapped prior to the 2002 Winter Games to have crippled another, equally familiar Olympic trade.

For nearly two decades now, the fervent exchange of pins has been as much a part of the Olympics as wind-chill. The little logoed trinkets had become international currency, attracting both collectors and investors as the rarest of them gained substantial financial value.

And they were everywhere.

Independent brokers set up stands throughout a host city. Entire showcases were arranged at venues with little tokens pertinent to the event being contested there. Individual fans broke into impromptu comparisons and transactions everywhere.

Early in the 2002 Games, though, Salt Lake City's streets have resembled Wall Street with relatively modest trading lately.

"It has not been too good yet," said Jean Paul Beland, who is attending his 12th Olympics as part pin-trader, part spectator. He'll spend some days trying to do business on street corners and others going to events. "I've traded one or two, but not many."

Beland is one of a half dozen or so traders who has set up temporary shop on Salt Lake's 200 South, a side street closed to vehicular traffic and dense with pedestrians. But, so far, sellers have outnumbered shoppers.

Two blocks away on Main Street, ticket scalpers did a brisk business with the large downtown crowd Saturday night. But most wanderers walked right past the Olympic Collectors Fair, a single-story mall where assorted concessionaires hawked pins, stamps and coins.

And that's not normal.

In the past, pin-trading might not have been an official event, but it had begun to rival shivering as the leading outdoor activity within an Olympic perimeter.

The practice has been around since the 1970s, but seemed to become an industry unto itself at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. Then, of course, there were Atlanta's Flea Market Games, when booths and tables cluttered the city and a pin superstore the size of a Kroger's was established downtown.

For a while, pins seemed as big as medals at the Olympics, a currency that flowed more freely than credit inside the merchandise marts.

National organizing committees proudly distributed them in a tacit competition to see which country could have the most displayed. Companies flooded Olympic cities with them as an inexpensive and limitless form of advertising. And the media pretty much used them as wampum, offering pins to gain favor with sources or simply to avoid waiting on line outside a bar.

They were everywhere. But in Salt Lake they're going nowhere.

"I think it's getting to the point where there are so many pins. That's the problem," said one pin-trader who preferred to be known only as Jim. "It used to be a pin was a collector's item. It meant something to have one. Now there's just so many out there."

Jim and his wife, who live in Calgary, stopped in Salt Lake on their way to wintering in Huma, Ariz., to trade a collection belonging to a friend. While there has been intermittent curiosity in the doublewide table they had put out, they have found little interest in the pins are trying to sell from between $5 and $30.

But even the pure traders, the self-styled curators of the pin market who claim to be more interested in acquiring new baubles than in profiting from the ones they have, say they have not experienced much interaction with SLC fans. Not yet, at least.

"It will pick up here," said Bill Baker, who hasn't gone in for the standard setup. He just stands around high-traffic areas with about 100 pins stuck to a scarf he wears outside his parka. "It's already way better than Sydney. Sydney was pretty slow."

So maybe this slack pin business in Salt Lake City is the beginning of a trend. Or the end of one, actually.

Then again, the slowdown could be a byproduct of increased security, the newly sensitized metal detectors at these Olympics perhaps discouraging people from wearing superfluous items on their clothing. Or maybe it was just a fad all along and simply exhausted its potential.

However it came about, the trading dearth is hard to figure. Because you'd think with the popularity of body piercing and personal ornamentation creating even more places to put them nowadays, pins would be enjoying a renaissance, not a recession.

"The first few days are always a little slow," said Beland. "By next week it should get better."

For that to happen, anybody trying to trade pins in Salt Lake will just have to stick to it.

Tim Guidera of the Savannah Morning News is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.