‘Unicorns and mermaids are very hot . . . also, narwhals’ (and other lessons from a souvenirs expert)
Bass Resort Sales Corp., based in Mansfield, is a longtime family-run business representing wholesale manufacturers in the resort, souvenir, amusement park, and water park industries. The company started in 1937 in Brockton as a local distributor to “five-and-dime” stores such as Kresge and Woolworth as well as New England souvenir shops on the coast and in the mountains. In the 1990s, current owner and Foxborough resident Mike Bass, 54, transitioned the company to include amusement parks and resorts. Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Bass.
Q. How long have you been in the family business and was it a natural transition?
A. You could say I’ve been working in the business for more than 40 years. I grew up in Hull and my first job was when I was 10, as an underage clerk at a souvenir stand at Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach. (The amusement park closed in 1984.) I usually make an annual pilgrimage to Hull to see how the place has changed. I didn’t intend to go into the family business. In college, at the University of Texas, I prepped for a corporate career in marketing. But when interviewing for jobs, I decided I didn’t want the rigid corporate life.
Q. What is your job, exactly?
A. Simply put, I’m a sales rep and I work with several companies to develop and sell products. I’m involved in design, sales, and distribution.
Q. What have been the biggest changes to your business?
A. Five-and-dime stores are gone and souvenir shops have been consolidated, like everything. It used to be that coastal and mountain towns had a lot of individually owned shops, but now national chains, like Wings, have gobbled them up. In our business, I noticed that the growth was going to be in amusement parks and water parks, and that’s where we headed.
Q. What are the hottest souvenirs and how have they changed over the past few decades?
A. Apparel is the new souvenir. Twenty-five years ago, there were a lot more collectible items, like spoons and thimbles. Past generations sought more collectibles, while nowadays people are more into wearables. And with collectibles, things have transitioned from lower-end disposable trinkets to nicer quality home décor.
Q. So in the clothing department, are you talking about mostly T-shirts and baseball caps?
A. Hooded sweatshirts continue to be popular. Our top item is the branded lifeguard sweatshirt from Popularity Products. If you’ve ever seen one for sale in New England, we’re the distributor. But overall, fashion apparel has replaced the basic T-shirt in the souvenir department. So the same fashion cuts you’re seeing at the malls and wearing every day, you’ll see in gift shops. For instance, the trend of the open shoulder shirt for women, I’m selling those now with a logo, taking what women are already wearing. Why not wear that with a resort name?
Q. What are some current design trends?
A. Unicorns and mermaids are very hot, and we incorporate them in both apparel and hard goods, like mugs and cups. Also, narwhals, the unicorn of the sea. As far as colors, neon is out, tie-dye is still huge, and we think we’re looking at a return to camouflage.
Q. How have changes in travel affected the souvenir business?
A. Souvenirs are basically a physical object to catch a fleeting memory of visiting somewhere, so that part hasn’t changed. But families are no longer just cruising around the roads of Maine or Cape Cod. More and more they want an experience. Instead of going to the beach for the day, they’re spending $400 a night at a water park. That’s a totally different experience, so we’re trying to give them a higher level of items that link to the memory of that.
Q. You’ve traveled around New England vacation areas for decades. Do you have a favorite?
A. I travel to a lot of very interesting places, but I see them mostly in the off-season. So, for instance, when I go to Bar Harbor in November, it’s a serene place. My favorite place to visit is Bailey Island, Maine. I was actually married there in 2002, so I’ve both worked and vacationed there. I love the unspoiled coastline. It’s one of the few places that has stayed the same.
Q. Speaking of things staying the same, are refrigerator magnets here to stay?
A. Some iconic souvenirs never change. People are still buying souvenir magnets — even though they don’t stick to stainless steel refrigerators.