Interpreting History: Midway Village gift shop focuses on timely products, displays
Today, visitors flock to Midway Village Museum in Rockford, Illinois, to learn about the region’s several pop culture claims to fame.
The Rockford Peaches — a force to be reckoned with in women’s professional baseball in the 1940s and ‘50s — were featured in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and more.
Before the Peaches, however, Rockford had the sock monkey. In the late 1800s, Nelson Knitting first manufactured a seamless sock, then trademarking its red-heel product in 1932, thus giving birth to this stuffed toy. Sock monkeys, with their traditional brown and white limbs and red lips, can be found across North America.
“There are a couple of key things that people come to see — Peaches and sock monkeys, for example,” said Brandi Poreda, gift shop and volunteer manager at the museum. “Then, the trick is to say, ‘There’s a lot of other things here, too.’”
Situated on 138 acres with a large indoor museum center and an even larger outdoor Victorian Village modeled after life between 1890 and 1910, Midway Village offers plenty to see. And for many visitors, walking away with a souvenir is part of the experience.
DRIVEN BY EVENTS
The gift shop is located at the entrance of the museum center and changes on a regular basis.
“My philosophy has been that I want to carry things in the gift shop that either tie to one of our exhibits or one of our events,” Poreda said. “One of the big goals in the gift shop is to further the interpreting of history that ties into our education department.”
The museum has dozens of events throughout the year that lead Poreda to rotate the front window and much of the merchandise.
During Sock Monkey Madness in March, attendees make their own sock monkeys, so the gift shop stocks more supporting merchandise: shirts, pins, keychains and stickers.
“Keychains and stickers are so big right now,” Poreda said.
Many visitors also come to see the 19th century Heritage Gardens in the Village, and for that Poreda finds products that tie in with when the flowers are in bloom, and for their iris sale in September.
Midway Village doesn’t look only at its own events to drive the gift shop, though. For example, EAA AirVenture, an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is the largest of its kind with more than 650,000 annual attendees. Although 160 miles north of Rockford, Poreda noticed a lot of international visitors were flying into Chicago’s airports and stopping at Midway Village on their way to the show.
The main draw for these people is the museum’s Aviation Gallery featuring two local aviators: Bessica Raiche, credited as the first female to fly solo in 1910, and Bert Hassell, credited with pioneering the “Great Circle Route” between the U.S. and Europe, and whose 1928 plane is on display.
“That’s pretty amazing that these people are coming from Denmark, Kazakhstan, all over the place,” Poreda said. “Since I know they’re coming, I put the aviation posters up front, I have the books about Bert Hassell — those kinds of things.”
Poreda tries to offer a variety of products at a range of price points in the gift shop.
“I try to do as much as I can locally, even if they’re not the manufacturers, if they’re the vendor that I can go through,” Poreda said. “Embroidery gets done here in town. Shirts and printing I order through a local vendor, and then they source them from there.”
Her partnership with local vendors has afforded her the ability to try a new online sales model that has worked well for some of the museum’s largest events.
The best example is World War II Days in September, which draws thousands of people annually for a military re-enactment and education about Rockford’s role in the war. Instead of having excess shirts and sweatshirts, Poreda takes the shopping to their website.
“One thing we’ve been doing more of is a kind of pop-up online store near events. Everybody will order the size they want, the style they want. Then it’ll close the day after the World War II Days, and it ships a week later,” Poreda said. “I’m not sitting on a bunch of stock that I guessed on sizes.”
This has been a very successful selling tool with the World War II brands — Camp Grant and the U.S.S. Rockford — so Poreda plans to expand it to Rockford Peaches Play Day in the Village, Sock Monkey Madness and more.