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Capitol Shop Can't Shelve Worries

Future Role at New Visitors Center Clouded

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page B01

There are fewer tourists in the Capitol these days, but deep in the bowels, those who clear security still come up to the little kiosk that serves as the U.S. Capitol Historical Society's gift shop. Sometimes they go for the $65 scarf inspired by 19th-century Capitol artist Constantino Brumidi or for the marble bookends and paperweights made from the old east steps.

On many days, Randy Gross stands behind the counter, listening to the echo of passing feet and the shouted farewells of tour guides releasing their charges. "We do more than sell trinkets," said Gross, who is also a licensed tour guide. "We don't promote Republicans or Democrats. We promote the Capitol."

Diana Wailes assists Jack Hubbert at the society's gift kiosk. Profits help the group fulfill its mandate to educate people about the Capitol and its art. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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But that mission is under threat.

The president of the society, Ronald A. Sarasin, says it is being squeezed out of a role in the much-delayed, $558.6 million Capitol Visitor Center scheduled to open late next year. When that happens, the temporary walls behind the kiosk will come down, and visitors will pour through the archways and inside.

The kiosk will have to move.

Sarasin was a three-term Republican congressman from Connecticut, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He went on to speak for restaurants and beer wholesalers, all the while preserving his access on the Hill. He now leads small groups through the Capitol, a simple pin on his lapel signifying his status and allowing him to skip the metal detectors and searches that ordinary visitors must undergo. Sometimes, a Hill staffer will even mistake him for a senator.

And yet every time Sarasin makes a well-placed call and asks about a future home for the kiosk, the answer is the same: No decisions have been made.

"It's not high on the members' list of priorities. I understand that," Sarasin said. "I've been there."

The kiosk is not just a moneymaker for the society, although it brings in close to a third of the group's roughly $3 million annual budget. "It's also where we show the flag," Sarasin said.

Without it, the society would struggle to publicize itself and its congressional mandate to provide educational programs, tours, lectures and fellowships about the Capitol and its artwork. For 43 years, the society has been promoting the Capitol's history, even drafting interns to research historical footnotes for every day of the year for the society's popular calendars. Without the ability to run a gift shop, the society would have to rely only on its catalog and Internet site, venues that bring in only a couple hundred-thousand dollars a year.

Board member Marty LaVor has donated 6,000 copies of a coffee-table book of fisheye-lens photographs of the Capitol. They will sell at the kiosk and on the society's Web site, www.uschs.org, for $35 each, with all proceeds going to the society.

A spokesman for the visitor center project said it was premature to talk about a gift shop in the new center because "the operations plan" for the center was still being developed, including the creation of a governing agency that would oversee any shop.

But Sarasin is hearing secondhand, thirdhand, in that time-honored Hill way, that a contract may soon be awarded to someone else.

When Diana Wailes, the society's director of sales, attended a trade show in Miami recently, she met a woman who identified herself as a consultant for the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission and said she was putting together a merchandising plan and a store layout for the new visitor center.

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