- Associated Press - Monday, November 22, 2010

LOS ANGELES | The morgue is about the last place you would think of to go shopping, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that sales at Los Angeles County’s coroner gift store are next to dead.

Tucked as unobtrusively as possible in a closed-door room off the coroner’s lobby, the store is jam-packed with mortality-mocking merchandise: Water bottles marked “bodily fluids,” boxer shorts dubbed “undertakers,” toe tags, crime-scene tape and beach towels bearing the county coroner’s trademarked symbol of a body outline.

Trouble is, few people know about the tongue-in-cheek store and its related website, Skeletons in a Closet (www.lacoroner.com/). The shop’s biggest customers? No shock here — homicide detectives.

“Most people know it through word of mouth,” said Craig Harvey, the department’s chief of operations. “But we are mentioned in guidebooks and we get tourists.”

County auditors, however, say that given the unique nature of the trinkets — the department is thought to be the nation’s only coroner with a trademarked merchandise line — the 17-year-old business could be a robust moneymaker if infused with marketing lifeblood.

They recommend that the coroner hire an outside firm with an eye to marketing the merchandise in high-traffic tourist areas, such as Hollywood Boulevard and Los Angeles International Airport.

Mr. Harvey is the first to say the merchandise has potential. It just hasn’t been a priority for a department that prides itself as one of the top forensic science units in the country, as well as the busiest.

“There is a mystique about the LA County coroner, something people identify with. People want to know what we do and how we do it,” Mr. Harvey said. “We can do government services very well, but business is another thing.”

A management audit released earlier this year found the store’s losses totaled $270,000 from 2003 to 2008, and was in effect being subsidized through surplus funds from an educational program against drunken driving.

Noting that retailing is not part of a coroner’s mission, Mr. Harvey said the department is open to expanding the operation but is awaiting a forthcoming fiscal review from the county controller-auditor to develop a plan.

At one point, the department contracted a company to market the items in Japan, but the project was dead soon after arrival — with little consumer interest, Mr. Harvey said. The department hasn’t sought new ventures since.

Still, the marketing opportunity is clearly there, given the department’s unrivaled profile in a largely unheralded field.

Over the decades, some of the world’s most captivating morbid mysteries have played out under the prying scalpels of Los Angeles pathologists.

There are the deaths of the famous such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean; killings that led to charges against the famous such as O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector; and the victims whose killers became famous such as the Menendez brothers, Charles Manson, and the victim herself, the Black Dahlia.

Numerous TV shows have added to the cachet, including the long-running 1976-83 drama “Quincy M.E.,” in which Jack Klugman played a curmudgeonly crime-solving coroner, and the more recent documentary-style “North Mission Road,” named for the department’s street location.

“There’s a definite interest in this,” said Scott Michaels, who owns Dearly Departed Tours, which offers tours of celebrated Los Angeles death landmarks. “Every other store along Hollywood Boulevard has LAPD and LAFD T-shirts. The LA coroner would be a natural.”

The store has always been somewhat of a bare-bones operation. It evolved from a few coffee mugs and T-shirts that the department printed to use as giveaways at conferences. Then people started requesting them and the department opened a small shop in a supply closet in 1993.

A following developed for the items that poke fun at death — there’s nothing gory or bloody — and it landed in tourist guidebooks as a stop for unique souvenirs.

Tour buses stop there and tourists do seek it out. However, the shop’s success has been limited by its location on the eastside of downtown Los Angeles amid a grimy strip of auto-glass businesses. The shop lacks a sign outside the coroner’s office, a red-brick, century-old former hospital.

It makes for a lot of lonely hours for store manager Edna Pereyda, who had no customers during a recent visit.

The department has deliberately downplayed the store, mindful that most people who seek out the coroner’s department are bereaved relatives. “They’re really not in the mood for this stuff,” Mr. Harvey said.

After a 2002 audit noted that the store lost $100,000 in the 2000-01 fiscal year, the department tightened operations considerably with better inventory and cash controls, and limits on officials’ use of merchandise as gifts. The audit noted that officials gave away $2,600 worth of stuff over a four-month period.

In 2008, losses narrowed to about $55,000 on the $175,000-per-year operation.

Marketing analysts said the merchandise likely would be popular, although it could perhaps reinforce foreigners’ perception of American cities as breeding grounds for violence.

“It is part of the makeup of people’s view of large cities in America,” said Bill Baker, author of “Destination Branding for Small Cities.” “But if this is more of a humorous thing, it could be a ‘I survived it’ sort of mentality. It’ll possibly sell well.”

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