Boston’s gift shops cater to a wide range of age, tastes, and discernment. If you’re not the sort of person who enjoys complicated ideas, you’ll be happy to know that several Freedom Trail shops seem to have ordered books from the same easy-reading catalogue, with non-challenging titles like Ghosts and The Boston Strangler splayed across their covers. If you forget to buy Witches at the Old South Meeting House, fear not! You’ll find it at the Old North Church. But pass up Stanley Crouch’s Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk: Thoughts on the Groundbreaking Classic Work of W.E.B. Dubois at the Old South Meeting House and you’ll never find it again.
Mind you, the gift shops do include materials on both the “black folk” and the women who lived in Boston — two groups who don’t show up in all those pretty pictures of Minutemen slaughtering British troops. Their stories have been sorely neglected in the past, and these educational institutions are trying — albeit in a very safe, tokenizing way — to correct that situation. That’s why every shop stocks a biography of Phyllis Wheatley, poet and African-born slave, and the only woman of color living in Boston at the time of the Revolution. (Or so it seems, anyway.) Old South Meeting House has seven different titles about Wheatley — including her actual poems!
Patrons who can’t stand to read inspirational middle-school-level Wheatley stories can buy the “Notable Black Women in American History” deck of cards, prominently displayed at every single gift shop in Boston. You can find it by looking for the picture of Josephine Baker’s eyeliner on the front — her face will come into focus a few seconds afterward.
The National Park Service shop in Boston, by contrast, wants to make you feel bad about taking your children into the city. The accusatory Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder is prominently positioned at their shop, alongside The Dangerous Book for Boys, which presumably will teach your sons how to hurt themselves in the wilderness. The store also offers “Sierra Club Urban Wildlife Cards,” for when you’ve given up on wilderness altogether, and decide to just teach your children about squirrels and cockroaches.
Let’s play with a piece of wood!
In many cases, “historic” simply seems to mean “technologically unsophisticated.” Alas, you won’t find any Grand Theft Pirate IV games at the shops. Instead, there are clothespin dolls, wooden whistles, “buzzsaws,” and “whimmydiddles.” Buzzsaws are pieces of wood with two holes looped on a long piece of string. If you are under 12, you can spin the contraption quickly enough to make a buzzing noise; this ability is lost at adolescence, along with virginity and appreciation for your parents’ taste in music. Whimmydiddles are sticks with notches on them, also featuring a smaller stick attached like a propeller at the end with a nail. Rub the notches with yet another stick and — get this! — the propeller will turn. That’s it. At least you can burn these toys when you realize that they’re boring.