We're here to dispel the myth that you have to see the exhibit before you can visit the gift shop. (Your parents were just trying to force culture.) It's also a myth that museum shops are stuffed with overpriced, humdrum tchotchkes.

Case in point: Nico, the $8.95 barista action figure now brewing at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, is the perfect gift for any latte lover. Read her story on the back of the box -- Nico's beans are always freshly ground, she never tamps the filter basket too tight, and her foam is perfect. This Seattle transplant/ex-Peace Corps worker is moody and curt, but her joe is the best.

Museum shops tend to scare people off, says Leslie Dungee, director of the art museum's gift shop. "But it sure beats the mall."

Think marble staircases instead of fluorescent-lighted food courts. And hand-picked items, with a purpose.

"Our products are designed by women, purchased from a woman-owned company, or relate to the work of women artists," says Lynda Marks, director of retail and wholesale operations at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

"I like items with a sense of humor because of the artwork being so intense," says Dungee.

Which would explain the Carmen Miranda stickers.

-- Janelle Erlichman

From top left: Coin purse by Elissa Bloom ($22) at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, Baltimore, 410-244-1900. Paperweights ($22 each) from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, 202-783-5000. History by the Meter ruler ($14.95) at the National Building Museum, 410 F St. NW, 202-272-2448. Barista Action Figure ($8.95) at American Visionary Art Museum. Washington license plate purse ($52) at the National Building Museum. Lorraine Blasor bikini envelope with yellow stationery ($4.50) at National Museum of Women in the Arts. George Washington's sunglasses ($6 each) at the Shops at Historic Mount Vernon, 703-799-8691. Carmen Miranda stickers by B. Shackman ($2.95) at American Visionary Art Museum. Mount Vernon Burgundy tie ($35) at Mount Vernon.