Pondering the Souvenir with travel writer (and Kansas native) Rolf Potts

Wichita native Rolf Potts has been traveling, teaching, and writing in various far-flung places for over twenty years now. His new book, Souvenir, is borne out of those adventures. It’s a fascinating, slyly eye-opening exploration of the impulse to buy things when we travel, a look at the history of buying such things, and an examination of how these things come to acquire meaning once we get them home. (As it happens, I’m writing this from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where, despite the sun-kissed and sanctified loveliness of the city, I’m finding myself spending an awful lot of time browsing tacky, tourist-baiting souvenir shops; I read Souvenir shortly before leaving KC.)

For Potts, home these days is a rural property in Saline County, Kansas. We recently chatted over email about what makes souvenirs such a fascinating topic, and about his own collection, which includes decades of Kansas City Royals mementoes. Potts will be reading from Souvenir at The Raven bookstore in Lawrence on Friday, April 13th.

You’ve done an enormous amount of traveling and travel writing over the last 25 years. When did you start thinking of writing a book about souvenirs? 

I’m an obsessive note-taker — a habit that predates (and feeds into) my travel-writing career. So many of the notes I scribble down on the road aim to illuminate the thread of a single journey, but over the years I came to realize that my various far-flung wanderings were also in conversation with each other. Thailand might not have much in common with Syria or Uruguay in a cultural or geographical sense, but all of those places compelled me, for some reason, to collect souvenirs as a way of making sense of my experiences. I came to realize that I had always been using souvenirs to narrate my own life to myself, in a way that went beyond the stories I was writing for places like National Geographic Traveler and Outside. About fifteen years ago I began saving all my souvenir notes in one computer file, and those notes formed the seed of the book. I came to discover that most all travelers, without even realizing it, use souvenirs as a form of folk storytelling. There is something very poignant and ultimately existential about this travel ritual — so I set out to make sense of it. 

Souvenir traces the very, very old tradition of buying, taking, stealing, or being given things to bring home from a long journey. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did it when they went to England; fourth-century Christian pilgrims did it when they traveled to Jerusalem; ancient Egyptian princes did it when they visited neighboring kingdoms. Where do you think this comes from, this – as you write — “impulse to make faraway places tangible?”

I think the compulsion to collect small mementoes as we travel is innate. When a little kid finds a colorful pebble or an old bottle-cap in a vacant lot across the street from her home and runs back to show it to her mother, she is, in effect, participating in the same ritual as the traveler collecting seashells or shopping for antiques in Bali. It’s a way of creating a sense of connection to an unfamiliar environment, a way of remembering a moment of wonder and discovery, a way of engaging (and attempting to assert a small token of control over) a world that is far bigger and older than we are. It is, in essence, a ritual of reverence. 

The book is studded with reflections on your own history of souvenir collecting. I’m wondering how your buying habits have changed over the years, or since you started researching and writing this book? What’s the go-to Rolf Potts souvenir now?

I think most everyone’s souvenir-buying habits change over time. This is something that has been observed by the scholars who’ve gone out and researched the psychology of souvenirs: Empirically speaking, first-time and less-experienced travelers spend more time shopping for souvenirs—and a bigger percentage of their budget buying them — than more seasoned travelers. As people become more experienced as travelers, they tend to get a more personalized sense for what they collect. In my case I’ve found that almost all of my souvenirs in recent years are found objects rather than purchased ones. Gift-shop wares remind me of gift shops, whereas stones or ticket stubs — or even the goofy stocking cap an Indian guy gave me when I underestimated how cold it would be in Himachal Pradesh — more directly evoke specific travel experiences. 

You spent some time at the industry’s largest trade show, the Las Vegas Souvenir & Resort Gift show — an event that sounds both overwhelming and bizarrely fascinating. What was the most surprising takeaway from that experience?    

Well, the most surprising takeaway for me was that, like most close-knit communities, the world of industrial souvenir vendors is filled with insider gossip, professional rivalries, and cutthroat power-struggles. Most of these gossipy details were too off-topic to make it into the book — though it feels like they could one day be the subject of a Netflix-type mockumentary. Insider scuttlebutt aside, I was taken by how many of the vendors and manufacturers put most of their resources into slight variations on standard-issue tourist fare such as t-shirts and coffee mugs. Seasoned travelers may poke fun at tourist kitsch — magnets, keychains, shot glasses — but perennial consumer demand makes these objects the bread-and-butter of the industry. 

I have to ask about your Kansas City Royals memorabilia, which you say amounts to a kind of shrine at your home in north-central Kansas. How long have you been collecting? Any pieces you’re particularly attached to? 

My earliest Kansas City Royals souvenir is a “Grand Slam” game program from the first game I attended — a 10-1 Royals victory over the California Angels on July 5th, 1978. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, my Aunt Lynda — who had taken me to that first game seven years earlier — sent me a commemorative stein, which for years was my most cherished Royals possession. When the team became a contender again a few years ago, I was so insufferably enthusiastic that my friends began to give me gift-shop baseballs (I have one from Dinosaurland National Monument in Utah, of all places, and another from Paris). One day I may well ask to be buried with my ticket stub from the 2014 Wild Card game — and when the Royals won the World Series that following year I made a point of buying a stein that matched my 1985 one. Like all of my souvenirs, my Royals mementoes evoke a very personal story — one that changes, ever so subtly, as the years go by.  

Souvenir is out now.