The Souvenir Shelf: From Tacky to Classy

I am the luckiest girl in the world. I have amazing parents who encouraged and supported my journeys across the globe, and I’m married to a like-minded man, similarly bitten by the travel bug. While we’ve already been so many places, our bucket list is still a mile long and growing.

When you travel as much as we do, however, things can begin to run together. Memories become fuzzy, and one Roman ruin morphs into another. I recommend documenting your travels to keep them fresh, as I do with this blog. Writing down your thoughts about a new location helps to cement them in your mind. It also gives you a way to return to that moment – that place – and retrace your steps. But for some, writing might not be the answer. Perhaps you are an avid scrapbooker, who has the energy and the patience for such a tedious craft. Or, like Alex, you might be a photojournalist, who documents the entire vacation. (Though, if you’re anything like my husband, those files, once downloaded, are lost in the cavernous computer, never to be seen again!) No matter your medium, I encourage everyone to record their vacations for posterity.

My family developed its own form of a travel log: the souvenir shelf. “Invented” by my parents on our first major trip, the souvenir shelf is, in my humble opinion, pretty awesome! For over eighteen years, we have continued to create a multi-media display of everywhere we’ve ever been, a literal expression of Dr. Seuss’ sentiment in “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” (I think he’d be impressed.)


The summer before sixth grade, we packed up the mini-van and headed out on a six-week roadtrip across the United States. Beginning in Raleigh, NC, we headed north to Chicago, and then due west, stopping at all the major landmarks along the way. After reaching Seattle, we turned south and traveled down the West Coast, enjoying the beaches, the food, and most especially, the weather. Once we had our fill of California’s “Sans” (as in Diego and Francisco), we headed home, carving our route through the Rockies and collecting more states as we trekked across the country. I did the math once we returned, in part to protest my ill treatment. In 62 days, we visited over 30 national/state parks and more than 55 museums, which averaged to more than one educational stop a day. As a pre-teen, I believed this to be an unacceptable “vacation.”

As an adult, however, I value that trip above all others. Maybe it wasn’t a Mediterranean cruise, but it showed me the beauty of my country. It emphasized to a young, naïve girl, that America is an enormous and diverse land. Arizona may look nothing like North Carolina, but both are magical in their own way. This trip, along with a similar expedition to the North East the following year, peaked my interest in travel, and, though I’m loathe to admit it, sparked my passion for history and, yes, even those dreaded museums. (Shh, don’t tell my parents!)

But this trip also created a problem. We visited so many unique sites, it was hard to honor them all. While in the moment, it is easy to think, “I will remember walking through the Grand Canyon forever.” But then you journey through Carlsbad Caverns, hike up Mesa Verde and it all starts to run together – fabulous though each may be.

Attempting to keep every wonderful site fresh in our minds, we decided to make a scrapbook. I began it day one of our journey, spending hours in the back seat cutting and pasting. In South Dakota I even created a paper bison with a moving tail. I mean, after all, how often do you see an American buffalo? Turns out, a lot! The first was awe-inspiring, like seeing a dinosaur come to life. The second was remarkable. The third – cool. And the 632nd was, “Oh crap, that damn bison is in the road again. MOVE!”

But as the voyage continued, I lost interest in my scrapbook. Talk about time-consuming! And while I might be crafty, it comes in waves. And this wave did not last 45 days. More like three. So we had to find a new plan. And that’s where the souvenir shelf comes in.


We all see the tacky souvenir stores that cluster around every major (and minor) attraction. The miniature Mount Rushmore’s, no larger than my palm. The two-inch plaster leaning Towers of Pisa set atop a base that says “Pisa,” as if you’d forget that little detail. And then there are the classy shot glasses, ridiculous spoons, and myriad of pens, t-shirts, hats, bags, and knickknacks with city names sprawled across them in bold lettering. Honestly, who buys this stuff?


Well, we do! It’s become part of our tradition to buy one (and only one, thereby helping your travel budget) tacky souvenir from every place we visit. It must be small (though we have made a few exceptions) and inexpensive (yes, we’ve also made a few exceptions to this rule, too). But generally, it’s meant to be that silly plastic figurine which looks ridiculous by itself, but when combined with hundreds of others, creates a visual masterpiece.


A kaleidoscope of color, our souvenir shelves (my parents now have four, and Alex and I are quickly catching up) brighten our living rooms as amusing conversation pieces. And when Alex and I are alone, snuggled on the couch at night next to the fire, we often look at the silly novelties and smile, both remembering the moment we bought that tacky gold camel in Dubai.

As I said, the souvenir shelf began with my family’s trip out West, and we have an entire shelf dedicated to just that trip. We, in fact, own the miniature Mount Rushmore, along with a trail sign from Yellow Stone, a stuffed bison from Montana, and a beautiful glass cactus to represent the Grand Canyon (this one was a splurge, but it is grand, after all!) As our travels turned abroad, we collected model castles, towers, villas, and basilicas. When visiting Russia we spent hours picking out the perfect matryoshka dolls.

Whether it’s a journey across the world or simply a day-trip to the next town over, the souvenir shelf is always ready for another addition… or 10! You can go to China for a month and bring home one souvenir (good for the budget), or you can decide to be a bit more aggressive and buy an item from each place you visit (more fun, but also more expensive!). However many you buy, the search is always a part of the fun. You have the freedom to walk into a silly souvenir shop, knowing that you actually have an excuse to purchase one of their ridiculous items. We’ve spent ages debating between the bright yellow New York City taxi and the juicy red apple sitting atop the Empire State Building. It’s all part of the experience.

Alex and I began our own collection while we were dating. (Risky, I know. How would we split up our collection if it didn’t work out? Honestly, we had to get married to keep the set together!) And it has stayed with us every since, traveling all the way to Japan. It now has a place of honor in our new home, our own three-dimensional scrapbook, which will continue to grow as we explore this wonderful country.


Here in Japan we are trying not to overstuff our shelves. Stationed here for three years, we could easily fill two more solely devoted to Japan and its Asian neighbors. However, the shelf is partly a budgetary solution, so we are trying to be cautious, and we have plenty of time to make our selections. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy and recount our previous travels as we look upon the shelf every day.

So the next time you take a trip, buy a tacky souvenir. Put it in a shelf above your kitchen doorway or use it to adorn the kids’ playroom. In no time you will have your own souvenir shelf, filled with life, love, and laughter. Because life is an adventure, so go explore!


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