Ghoulish Souvenirs for a Good Cause
Gift shops and I don't usually get along. They want my money, and I want to be amused by something I haven't seen a hundred times. This is not a problem at Skeletons in the Closet, an emporium of one-of-a-kind items designed to tickle my funny bone. Good thing, given the surroundings. This souvenir shop is upstairs from the Los Angeles County morgue, and such close proximity to several hundred bodies, even unseen, can be creepy. So it's just as well there’s some whimsy mixed in with the merchandise.
There is the $18 garment bag that looks like a body bag. Red toe tags identical to those in use downstairs cost $5 with your name imprinted on them. Boxer shorts, called Undertakers, are covered with miniature depictions of the chalk outline that the police sometimes draw around splayed bodies at crime scenes. After perusing the T-shirts, jackets and sweats with a similar theme, customers who feel torn about actually buying might be nudged by a slogan on one of the store’s catalogs: "Part of you thinks it's in poor taste—Part of you wants an XL."
Skeletons in the Closet goes after yucks, but the store itself is no joke. It's the official gift shop of the Los Angeles County Office of Coroner, staffed by department clerks and sanctioned by the elected board of supervisors for the nation's most populous county. Started by employees ten years ago in a closet (hence the name), the lark has turned lucrative, ringing up some $300,000 in sales last year without spending a penny on advertising.
Walk-ins are encouraged, but signs are prohibited because overt commercialism might offend family members who come to the morgue to identify a loved one. Located four miles and two freeways east of downtown, the shop is secreted in a corner of the sprawling Los Angeles County—USC Medical Center complex.
Once inside the lobby, I’m buzzed through a locked door, and a clerk nods toward an old elevator that groans its way up to the second floor. Halfway down a dimly lit office corridor, a small sign verifies that Skeletons in the Closet is no urban legend.
Silliness is evident at once. Pasted on the door is a warning to shoplifters: "Next of Kin Will be Notified." Below, a note advises check writers to use their dental records in lieu of the usual forms of identification. Inside the 15-by-20-foot room, tables display small items: refrigerator magnets, lapel pins, toe tags and notepads bearing the shop's trademarked body outline logos or the words "L.A. County Coroner." Beach towels, T-shirts and weatherproof windbreakers all featuring the chalk outline fill shelves along the wall. (One windbreaker design has been discontinued; too many customers were using it to gain admittance to actual crime scenes.) Computer mouse pads carry the teaser "We're dying for your business."
I have the shop to myself, but I'm told about a dozen patrons a day find their way up here. Some have come to the morgue on official business—detectives, paramedics, doctors—but most are civilians. On the day I was there, recent drop-ins had come from as far as Des Moines, Boston, Toronto, Alvin, Texas and Chelsea, Alabama.
"Last week someone was here from Italy," says Salene Limon, the store's senior clerk, who dispenses her business cards from the spring-loaded jaw of a small plastic skull on her corner desk. Summer is peak time, with many of the customers making the rounds of celebrity death sites in Los Angeles, such as the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi overdosed, and the nightclub on Sunset Strip where River Phoenix expired on the sidewalk.
The concept for the shop took hold in the early 1990s when the coroner's staff began selling "L.A. County Coroner" coffee mugs and T-shirts at industry conferences, then to employees and their families. "Once the public started seeing the T-shirts, the phone calls rolled in," says James Hazlett, the store's marketing analyst. In 1993, the closet expanded to a converted office.
Former chief medical examiner Thomas Noguchi, known as the Coroner to the Stars, built the department's cachet as the morgue for the famous through his handling of autopsies of Kennedy, Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin and Natalie Wood, among others. His headline—grabbing style made Noguchi the best-known coroner in the country and inspired the outspoken character played by Jack Klugman on the 1970s TV series "Quincy." Noguchi's 1983 memoir, Coroner, became a bestseller.
Not surprisingly, Christmas is the busiest season, with an uptick around Halloween. In 1996, a Japanese retailer spent $30,000 at the shop. The Web is the next frontier. The site, at www.lacoroner.com, features an animated skeleton that seems more appropriate to Saturday morning TV cartoons than a morgue. Browse on Boo-verly Hills Drive or Pacific Ghost Highway.
"People who come in here either like it or they hate it," says Hazlett. By using the Internet and pursuing a teenage market (the "skater crowd," as he puts it), he predicts sales of $1 million by 2006. He's adding new products: his first shipment of body logo beanie caps was snatched up by staff.
Profits from the shop support a county court program that sentences drunk drivers to shock-therapy visits to the morgue. On a recent Saturday morning, 21 mostly young offenders—some accompanied by a parent—watched a gruesome video about alcohol-caused traffic accidents, then recited the details of their crimes to the group. Though having to confess clearly upset some of the young offenders, most seemed more agitated about touring the morgue itself. Lt. David Smith handed out disposable gloves and paper bootees and masks to protect against bacteria. "It won't help with the smell—just breathe through your mouth," he advised a pale teenager.
Several autopsies were under way as the line shuffled tentatively past corpses in plastic wrap; clearly, youthful bravado had yielded to the sight of lifeless bodies. "It gets to them. It works," Smith told me after the tour. Suddenly, the oldest of the group, a man in his 50s, ran back from the parking lot through a beating rain. Is it true, he asked, that there is a gift shop? He'd like to take home a souvenir.
©Kevin Roderick 2003
Not for publication without permission