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Pope Benedict merchandise for sale--but no one is buying

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A commemorative coin featuring Pope Benedict XVI sells for $2.25 at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. ***Please note small file size: 1119 pixels by 867 pixels*** (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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Books by and about the current pontiff, including "We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI" by Matthew Bunson, sit neglected on a shelf at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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Plaques depicting Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus Christ and Mary sell for $12.99 each at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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Prayer cards featuring Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II are for sale at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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A video interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, is on sale for $12.50, down from $16.99, at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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Kristine Leonard, a manager at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall, sells very few items relating to Pope Benedict XVI. (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

It was a typical weekday afternoon at the Long Island Catholic Supply store in Roosevelt Field Mall. A few teenagers stopped in to get bracelets reading “WWJD?”--or “What Would Jesus Do?”--and adults hoping to sell their houses purchased miniature statues of St. Joseph, the patron saint of real estate.

But what the customers weren’t purchasing stood out. No one stopped at the rack under the crucifixes for a Pope Benedict XVI plaque, or at the nearby shelves for a Pope Benedict book, or by the cash register for a Pope Benedict commemorative coin.

“Nobody’s used to him yet,” said store manager Kristine Leonard, 41, whose father runs the shop.

“He’s fresh meat out of the conclave,” offered customer Hao Bui, 25, a member of the Knights of Columbus.

“You get to know them, how they imitate the Lord and you fall in love,” added Maria Gonzalez, 47, who picked up the latest issue of the Catholic magazine Magnificat.

Then came a revealing answer from another store manager, Colin McQuade. “Pope John Paul II was an attractive man physically, and he was a smiling pope,” said McQuade, 37, who has worked at Catholic Supply for 21 years. “Everyone sees Benedict and thinks he’s a sourpuss. But he’s not.”

After John Paul II became pope in 1978, his youthful appearance and dynamic speaking style quickly won over Catholics, who gobbled up items with his likeness on them throughout his 26 years as pontiff. But the same cannot be said for Benedict, whom many Catholics view as frail and out of touch since he was elected pope in April 2005.

Estimates on religious merchandise sales are difficult to come by because retailers fear releasing revenue breakdowns might give competitors an advantage. But based on what is available, the poor sales of Benedict merchandise appear to be widespread.

According to Leonard and McQuade, Long Island Catholic Supply has only sold a few of the Benedict plaques, which cost $12.99. At the Catholic Company, the largest Catholic retail Web site, Benedict’s first encyclical--his letter explaining theological issues to bishops--does not sell nearly as well as those written by John Paul II. And director Lester Young of the Popes Museum in New Brunswick, Canada, the only institution of its kind in the world, does not even stock Benedict items in the gift shop because he’s “sure we won’t sell them.”

“I’m a very small museum, so I cannot afford to just have stuff lying around,” Young said. Asked if customers visiting the museum often inquire about Benedict merchandise, he answered, “Nobody ever mentioned anything. This tells me he’s not attaining people like John Paul did. When you look at him going around, the few trips he went around the world, it’s not the same atmosphere at all.”

Whether the comparison to John Paul is fair or not, it’s one being drawn by more and more customers. Every aspect of the popes' personalities has become fair game, from age and physical features to speaking style and smiling frequency. That Benedict lags behind John Paul in many Catholics’ comparisons isn’t surprising to Matthew Bunson, an author whose detailed papal portrait “We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI” remains neglected on the shelf at Long Island Catholic Supply.

“He doesn’t have the kind of media presence that John Paul II did, and that doesn’t translate well into merchandise sales,” Bunson said. “It’s important to remember that he is the successor to probably the most beloved pope of the last century, a pontiff who over the course of time will probably be declared a saint.”

And if being compared with John Paul II isn't difficult enough, Benedict has been described by some in the media as a Darth Vader-like figure. Many Web sites even note the similarities in facial appearance between Benedict and Emperor Palpatine, the evil leader from the “Star Wars” movies. Add that to Benedict’s controversial remarks about Muslims last year, and the result is a figure some find difficult to embrace.

Among the clergy, Benedict’s poor merchandise sales also raise a deep theological question. Should a pope be measured by how well he markets himself, or how well he connects Catholics to the church? The Rev. Robert Imbelli, a theology professor at Boston College, said Benedict’s low-key style allows the religion’s true superstar to shine.

“This pope really wants to keep the focus not upon himself or even his office but upon what the church should be about: the relationship to Jesus Christ,” Imbelli said. “Quite honestly, I’ve never been a fan of papal T-shirts or mugs. That he’s not doing well in that category is not a minus but a plus.”

But store owners should not close shop just yet. For as dreary as the outlook is right now, many predict sales of Benedict merchandise will pick up in coming years as people become more familiar with him. In perhaps the kindest comparison yet between the popes, McQuade suggested that John Paul II was a “bubble gum” pontiff who immediately left a positive impression, while Benedict is more of an acquired taste.

Vernacular translation: In the months ahead, more Catholics may begin to appreciate Benedict the way Gonzalez does.

“He’s leading us in a way we don’t understand because he can communicate with God,” she said, holding the Magnificat tightly to her chest. “He’s holy.”

E-mail: nhh2102@columbia.edu