crimesider

Black Friday Deals from the L.A. Coroner's Gift Shop? Aiming to Revive Sales of "Morgue Merchandise"

L.A. Coroner Aims to Revive Gift Shop Sales
Merchandise Displayed Inside the L.A. Coroner's Gift Shop (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (CBS/AP) The morgue has got to be the last place you'd think to go shopping - so perhaps it's not surprising that sales at the Los Angeles County Coroner's gift shop are next to dead.

Then again, officials are encouraging the coroner to develop a marketing strategy. They appear to be dead serious.

Tucked as unobtrusively as possible in a closed-door room off the coroner's lobby, the store is jam-packed with mortality-mocking merchandise: Water bottles marked "bodily fluids," boxer shorts dubbed "undertakers," toe tags, crime-scene tape and beach towels bearing the county coroner's trademarked symbol of a body outline.

Trouble is, few people know about the tongue-in-cheek store and its related website, "Skeletons in a Closet." The shop's biggest customers? No shock here - homicide detectives.

"Most people know it through word-of-mouth," said Craig Harvey, the department's chief of operations. "But we are mentioned in guidebooks and we get tourists."

County auditors, however, say given the unique nature of the trinkets - the department is believed to be the nation's only coroner with a trademarked merchandise line - the 17-year-old business could be a robust moneymaker if infused with marketing lifeblood.

They recommend the coroner hire an outside firm with an eye to marketing the merchandise in high-traffic tourist areas, such as Hollywood Boulevard and Los Angeles International Airport.

Harvey is first to admit the merchandise has potential. It just hasn't been a priority for a department that prides itself as one of the top forensic science units in the country, as well as the busiest.

"There is a mystique about the LA County coroner, something people identify with. People want to know what we do and how we do it," Harvey said. "We can do government services very well, but business is another thing."

A management audit released earlier this year found the store's losses totaled $270,000 from 2003 to 2008, and was in effect being subsidized through surplus funds from a drunken driving education program.

Noting that retailing is not part of a coroner's mission, Harvey said the department is open to expanding the operation but is awaiting a forthcoming fiscal review from the county controller-auditor to develop a plan.

Over the decades, some of the world's most captivating morbid mysteries have played out under the prying scalpels of Los Angeles pathologists.

There are the deaths of the famous such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean; killings that led to charges against the famous such as O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Phil Spector; and the victims whose killers became famous such as the Menendez brothers, Charles Manson, and the victim herself, the Black Dahlia.

Numerous TV shows have added to the cachet, including the long-running 1976-83 drama "Quincy M.E.," and the more recent documentary-style "North Mission Road," named for the department's street location.

"There's a definite interest in this," said Scott Michaels, who owns Dearly Departed Tours, which offers tours of LA's celebrated death landmarks. "Every other store along Hollywood Boulevard has LAPD and LAFD T-shirts. The LA coroner would be a natural."

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