In Jimmy Carter's hometown, political memorabilia mix with emotion
Published in News & Features
PLAINS, Ga. — He makes clear he will pay very little for people’s treasures.
They come anyway. Or sometimes they just anonymously mail him memorabilia that they value, hoping he’ll find them a good home. Because surely somebody will want this stuff: Plastic Jimmy Carter bottle openers that pop off caps with his gaping mouth. An Amy Carter paper doll kit. George Wallace presidential campaign buttons from 1968.
In the little south Georgia hometown of former President Carter, Philip Kurland and his wife, Ramona, own the Plains Trading Post. Their business card proclaims the business is “The Country’s Largest Political Memorabilia and Secret Service Pin Dealer.”
It is a ready-to-sell shrine of all things “Jimmy” — branded salt and pepper shakers, toothpick holders, political buttons, books, refrigerator magnets and products emblazoned with every iteration of exaggerated Carter-like grins. It also offers up the leftovers of lots of other politicians’ campaign dreams. Many of the names have faded from memory. Byrd. Dukakis. Gephardt. Frank Church. Gen. Curtis LeMay?
For at least the last nine years, the couple has advertised their business and building for sale on Facebook. During the first year and a half of the pandemic, they shuttered the store, all but retiring.
But they were drawn back. They’d commute from their apartment one floor above the shop to open just on weekends. “We missed the people,” says Philip Kurland.
Then Carter went into home hospice in February. More visitors and press came to town. Kurland says they decided to reopen every day, until, in his words, “it draws to a conclusion.”
It’s a bit of a community mourning period in Plains. They want to be part of it.
The items that stock the shop are brought in from basements and attics around the nation.
“I never know what will walk through that door,” he says.
A sitting congressman from up north came by in hopes of making a trade: his piles of Wallace buttons for a rare Carter button. A former Carter campaign staffer with loads of leftover stuff. And someone, or maybe multiple someones, with access to special collectible coins made for Secret Service agents, specific to their protection assignments.
Thousands of political buttons sit in bins stacked on tables and shelves. There are framed campaign bumper stickers on walls, a display of paper Chinese yo-yos from the 1980 Carter reelection campaign and, near the front door, campaign buttons ready for 2024 presidential bids by Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Ron DeSantis. Also a stash of Christmas ornaments that originated at the Clinton presidential library.
Thousands more pieces are in storage in the back, often in cardboard boxes labeled with black markers: “Schwarzenegger, Arnold,” “Citizens Party, Communist, Socialists,” “Perry, Rick,” “Humphrey,” “Kucinich.”
When it comes to who he buys from, Kurland isn’t willing to name names. And he says he’s straight to the point with sellers.
“I tell them I am the grim reaper of political sales. I’m not going to pay much for it.”
A lot of times that’s OK. They just want their keepsakes to be appreciated. Often, their kids or grandkids have already turned them down.
“It’s not dollars and cents,” Kurland says. “There’s emotion here.”
In years past, Carter often stopped by the shop, which is only a few blocks from the former president’s home. He’d want to say hello to the Kurlands and visit with tourists, not shop for memories of campaigns past.
But sometimes Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, would give Kurland old campaign materials to keep or sell. “She is a sweetheart,” says Kurland.
Occasionally she’d peruse the store’s offerings as her husband waited, the shopkeeper recalls. “She wanted something for $5 and he yelled, ‘$5!.’” Carter was known for being careful with every dollar.
Actually, such a price violates a rule Kurland tries to stick to.
“All our prices start off with ‘only.’ So, ‘this is only $6.99.’ That’s very important. It’s expensive if it doesn’t start off with ‘only.’”
Philip is 71. Ramona is ... “younger,” he says. She laughs and says, “I’ve been around longer than dirt.”
When they first settled in Plains in the early 1990s, they specialized in selling handmade Native American wares. Soon they shifted to antiques. But it was vintage political buttons that got the most attention from customers. They settled into memorabilia more than 20 years ago.
The Kurlands enjoy banter with anyone who enters the shop. He with his Bronx accent; she with what remains of her Chicago roots.
They do things their way. They accept only cash, check or, just recently added, PayPal. They operate in a 121-year-old building and don’t sell online. They only buy from people who are willing to travel to Plains, a two and a half hour drive from Atlanta and 50 minutes from the closest interstate.
The memorabilia are a reminder of a different era. Pinning your political allegiance on your chest? These days, “It’s very foolish to let people read where you stand,” Kurland ventures.
Some people want reminders. Lately, more tourists have been seeking out “Jimmy” stuff in particular. “Do you know how many people come in here who have named their sons Carter, because they like Carter?”
Media folk, who swept into town when Carter began hospice care, have shown a particular affinity for Billy Beer, named for the former president’s brother. Kurland said he recently sold out of his last two cases of the stuff, now decades old. And someone paid $130 for his only bottled version of the suds.
In a glass case out front is a belt buckle for the Ronald Reagan/George Bush ticket in 1984. And beside it, the Kurlands’ most expensive Jimmy Carter paraphernalia: two Carter buttons from a failed 1966 run for Georgia governor. Price: $229.99 for the pair.
But Kurland says his favorite Jimmy item in the store is a political button that says “Gimme Jimmy.” He bought a couple thousand from a former campaign worker. Now he’s down to about 300 or fewer.
Second favorite? A bicentennial-themed button of Carter with a peanut body and a massively toothy smile. “I have enough for five lifetimes. Maybe I have 20,000.”
Kurland has had personal collections of his own that he treasured in the past: political buttons, Secret Service pins, comic books, baseball cards, coins. Now, he says, his only personal memorabilia are the couple photos of him and Ramona with the Carters.
“Why am I going to want to have stuff? We have no kids.”
He and Ramona plan to move out of their upstairs apartment once they are finished renovating a house three blocks away. Then, he says, they’ll really get serious about selling the business.
Nearly as soon as he says this, he describes a stash of about 15,000 old campaign items he is on the verge of buying for the shop. It could take years to sell through the extra supply. Why is he still overstocking a store he plans to sell?
“I just can’t help myself,” he confesses.
“He’s so programmed,” Ramona says behind him.
“I’m addicted to buying buttons.”
“Yes,” his wife proclaims. “He’s nuts.”
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