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Leaving the bull (and bear) on Wall Street

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The "charging bull" statue in the financial district is still a popular destination for many tourists. But in the midst of a bear market, fewer visitors are buying bullish souvenirs. (Photo by Yoree Koh/CNS)

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Rapten Lhawon, a street vendor in the financial district, sells framed photos of well-known New York sights. Lhawon can't remember the last time he ordered framed photos of Wall Street, saying they have become less popular among tourists since the financial crisis gained momentum last fall. (Photo by Yoree Koh/CNS)

On a recent afternoon in downtown Manhattan, not even a spate of April flurries could deter the hundreds of tourists who came to pay their respects to the 3 1/2-ton charging-bull statue in the heart of New York City’s financial district. Still, although the gigantic bull, a symbol of market optimism, is receiving plenty of good-luck rubbing from visitors and bankers, bullish souvenirs aren’t bringing in much business for Wall Street retailers.

Rapten Lhawon, a street vendor who sells framed photographs of famous New York sights just two blocks south of the bronze statue, in Battery Park, hasn’t had a need to replenish his stock of Wall Street-related photos.

“I don’t even remember the last time I ordered any,” says Lhawon, looking at a frame that features two black-and-white photos—a Wall Street street sign on the top half and a picture of the popular bull statue below it.

The street vendor says he used to sell at least two Wall Street frames, which cost $10 to $12 each, a day. But since the foreboding days of fall, customers now prefer to take home a panoramic shot of the Manhattan skyline.

At a time when the banking industry is being demonized for its high-flying culture, novelties and other items that commemorate the Wall Street way of life are slumping off the market.

Personal accessories like neckties decorated with stock quotes, bull and bear cuff links, and drinking glasses weren’t the hot-selling holiday gift items they had been in the past at Wallstreetgifts.com, a Web site that sells Wall Street-related merchandise, and other similar stores. Cufflinks.com, an online specialty store based in Dallas that boasts more than 1,500 styles of cuff links and other men’s goods and currently carries six types of bear and bull cuff links has seen a decrease in the number of bear- and bull-style cuff links sold.

“We knew we were losing an entire market,” says Brendan Haaf, manager of West Coast sales for Cufflinks.com, when troubles in the banking industry were exposed last fall.

The company braced for a 15 percent drop in sales in the “bull and bear” category. The market symbols were unexpectedly saved by an estimated 5 percent increase in demand from overseas and only experienced a 2 to 3 percent decrease.

Standing next to the whip-tailed bull and with a tan scarf protecting his ears from the chill, Jose Ruvalcaba and his wife posed for a picture.

“I believe in Wall Street, but I’m kind of mad at it right now,” said Ruvalcaba, 53, who was on vacation with his wife from Los Angeles.

The photo op will be enough of a souvenir for the retired businessman. A tour of the financial district was not at the top of the Ruvalcabas’ sightseeing list. Instead, he and his wife visited downtown at his son’s request. The reluctance of banks to make loans has his son, a real estate broker, tracking the markets obsessively, Ruvalcaba says.

Shelley Hale, 40, a tourist from Wilson, N.C., was excited to see the bull statue firsthand. It was her first trip to New York, and Hale made sure to stop and pose with the bull, located a short walk from the New York Stock Exchange. But even Hale, a self-described “financial guru” like Ruvalcaba, did not plan to commemorate her visit with a trinket from Wall Street, opting for an “I Love NY” T-shirt instead.

As three Wall Street workers walked past the scene of flashing cameras and tourists from Europe and Asia trying to scale the bull, some successfully propping themselves up behind the horns, and yelling, “Woo woo!” one worker dressed in a dark suit commented on the icon: “I wonder if they’ll replace it with a big bear.”

Individual consumers aren’t the only ones scaling back. Firms are cutting back not just on bonuses, but also on fringe purchases used to reward employees for performance. Fewer trophies are being awarded to employees, and conference attendees are heading home without goody bags.

“We used to ship to the Ritz-Carlton for a Merrill Lynch conference or whatever,” says Gloria LeBlanc, founder and owner of the Web site Wallstreetgifts.com. “But we didn’t ship to any Ritz-Carltons this year.”

Once reliably best-selling items, Wall Street novelties like bear and bull bookends and bull statues have barely sold during the past six months. LeBlanc’s business, based in Chula Vista, Calif., is getting doubly hit with decreases in sales and customers opting for lower price points, bypassing the $130 bull statue made of copper for the $50 version made of resin.

Not everything has been a washout in the Wall Street business, especially for those capitalizing on the good old days. Traffic to Bullmarketgifts.com, an online store founded in September 2008 that sells vintage Wall Street memorabilia, has increased fourfold since the start of 2009, according to Michael Oaklief, the president and founder. Oaklief attributes the increase to dramatic changes within the industry, raising the worth of certain limited-edition items, similar to the baseball card of a pitcher who unexpectedly retired.

While “bull and bear” is consistently the No. 1 searched category, the most searched-for item on Bullmarketgifts.com is a framed copy of Enron’s “Code of Ethics” handbook. Keeping their ears pressed to the news, Oaklief and his staff have been busily acquiring more items to add to the site’s “Scandalous” collection as banks fail or crooked bankers like Bernie Madoff are exposed.

“There are items that you can get now that were unthinkable before, and they’ve also become highly collectible,” says Oaklief, whose merchandise list includes a Lehman Brothers commemorative desk clock ($175), a Bear Stearns trader’s vest ($495) and a Bernard Madoff Investment Securities humidor ($175).

There was a slight shift the last week of March after investor confidence grew in reaction to the release of the Obama administration’s rescue plan for toxic assets. The market enjoyed a bear market rally with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining more than 20 percent for the first time since the economic downturn began in October 2007. Wallstreetgifts.com experienced its own turnaround when some customers who had pending orders finally said, “OK, I’m goin’ for it,” LeBlanc says.

“One has to wonder how much positive in the market there had to be before someone purchases anything,” LeBlanc says.

What LeBlanc lost in her Wall Street business, she is making up for in piggy banks. LeBlanc owns another online store, Banksbanksbanks.com, which specializes in piggy banks. She says sales on the site reached $1 million last year, a 12 percent increase from 2007.

There was also a noticeable uptick in sales in “educating banks,” which are kid-friendly banks with three designated coin slots that help teach a child how to spend, save and share.

“We just know from what happened to us that if everyone had learned as a kid how to manage their money,” LeBlanc says, “we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now, right?”

E-mail: yak2106@columbia.edu