- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

Master vendor does brisk sale of souvenirs

The "master vendor" for the 54th Presidential Inauguration is probably issuing more license plates these days than the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

In the last three weeks, Brian J. Harlin estimates he has sold between 1,000 and 2,000 official inaugural license plates, which cost between $50 and $65 apiece.

He peddles the plates as well as other inaugural merchandise, such as buttons, champagne flutes and wristwatches from a tiny store in the basement of the U.S. Transportation Department at 600 Independence Ave. SW.

Mr. Harlin, a Bowie native and a lifelong Republican, also sells similar GOP merchandise through GOP Shoppe, his Beltsville-based on-line and mail-order business.

"I am very blessed in that I love what I do and I make money off it," he says.

Mr. Harlin declines to disclose his company's annual revenue, but he says he sold more than $175,000 worth of merchandise over his Web site last week. He says he does not know how this compares with the same week in 2000.

His shop is open every day through Inauguration Day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

He admits the basement of the Transportation Department is not the best place to peddle his wares because of its tight security.

All visitors to the building must pass through a metal detector and sign in at a visitors center before being escorted to the store.

"We got a late start [because of the disputed election results]… . This is the best we could do," he says of the location.

His best-selling items are the license plates, which motorists are allowed to display on their cars from Jan. 1 through April 30, 2001. Inaugural-themed license plates date to 1933, he says.

The least-expensive items in his shop are lapel pins and key chains, which cost $5 apiece. The most expensive items include a bronze medallion bearing a likeness of President-elect George W. Bush that sells for $48, and a wristwatch with the inaugural seal that costs $69.95.

"There is something for everyone in every price range," he says.

Mr. Harlin has been in the business of political retail since 1993, when he published a calendar that counted the days in President Clinton's first term. He called the calendar "The Conservative Countdown: Days Until Slick Willie Goes Home."

In the beginning, he sold his merchandise out of an apartment in College Park. He later opened a shop downtown, but today, he sells his merchandise over the Internet and through his catalog.

His company employs about 60 workers. In addition to selling merchandise to private citizens, Mr. Harlin also produces buttons, T-shirts and other items for Republican candidates.

Customers have included failed GOP presidential candidates Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes.

When the Presidential Inauguration Committee's trademark of the official inaugural seal expired in 1995, Mr. Harlin successfully applied for it. But he let Mr. Clinton use it for his second inauguration in January 1997.

Mr. Harlin won the contract to be the master vendor of the presidential inaugural earlier this month. The job allows him to be the official distributor of Inauguration-themed merchandise, he says.

Political merchandise appears to be selling well across town.

Craig LaCasse, assistant manager of the Political Americana shop in Union Station, says his business has also been brisk.

In November and December, when the results of the presidential election were still undecided, Mr. LaCasse's shop sold some Inauguration-themed buttons featuring both Mr. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore.

"Those will be collector's items," Mr. LaCasse says.

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