The Pope and the Profits


By Pallavi Gogoi The Barnes & Noble (BKS) store on tony Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan has its prominent new-paperback display filled with books about Pope John Paul II. It caught the eye of Joe Pavlovic, an architecture student who moonlights as a security guard. "There's so much I want to know about him now -- it seems like he was more than a religious head and played an important role in determining world politics," says Pavlovic, a 25-year-old Catholic, who bought a biography.

Pavlovic isn't alone. The interest generated from the television coverage of Pope John Paul II's varied life has provided a huge boost not just for booksellers but also for auction sites and businesses that offer religious mementos. As of Apr. 7, online retailer Amazon.com (AMZN) had among its Top 20 best sellers five books written by, and about, the Pope. Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium by Pope John Paul II was No. 6, and Pope John Paul II: In My Own Words at No. 9. None of the five figured in the top 20 before the Pontiff's death.

WRISTBANDS AND COMICS. Hoping to make quick bucks, many people dusted off their Pontiff-related memorabilia and put it up for sale on eBay (EBAY). On Apr. 6, the online auction site listed more than 11,000 such items. There were only 100-plus listed on eBay at the time of the Pope's death, on Apr. 2. "It's natural for people to search for iconic images to recall the magic of a persona," says Richard Hastings, a retail economic consultant in Charlotte, N.C.

Hani Durzy, a spokesman for eBay, declined to speculate if the figure broke the record for the number of items on sale after a celebrity's death. He did say such spikes were common, pointing to the increased memorabilia-selling after the demise of former President Ronald Reagan and entertainer Bob Hope.

The eBay list ranged from the expected holy mementos to the unusual. Sellers auctioned off rosaries, medals, and wristbands featuring the Pope, as well as old issues of magazines and newspapers with his photograph. The treasure trove included china thimbles, poseable dolls, and old Marvel (MVL) comics depicting the life of John Paul II. There was a Pope bobble-head doll. A ticket to the Mass the Pontiff held in Yankee Stadium in 1979 was offered for $1,000.

GOUGING THE FAITHFUL? Among the most expensive items: a bottle of holy water blessed by the Pope, at $500,000, and an oil-pastel portrait of John Paul II, signed by him, at $150,000. Bidding for the holy water closes on Apr. 15, and for the portrait, Apr. 12.

John Paul II's funeral is expected to draw up to 2 million people to Rome, and the Associated Press reports that Italian consumer watchdog group Codacons has accused cafes, restaurants, and hotels of hiking prices to gouge tourists and pilgrims. The group estimated that local businesses would earn at least $122.5 million in the two weeks after the Pope's death: $64.4 million for stores selling religious artifacts, including rosaries, images, and small statues of saints; $25.8 million for restaurants, bars, cafes, and grocery stores; and $32.2 million for hotels.

Visitors will likely spend an additional $193.4 million on transportation to and within Rome.

"REMINDER OF GREATNESS." The faithful are buying artifacts in places other than Rome as well. Churches and holy places around the world that stock Pope-related mementos are ringing up sales and having to restock shelves. In Wadowice, Poland, the Pope's birthplace, crowds were lining up outside to buy pictures and brass plaques at the local church's souvenir shop.

At New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral, Therese Rohan bought a $3 prayer card for her mother. The card featured the Pope with the late Cardinal John O'Connor. "Both were two important figures for my mother, and this card will serve as a reminder of their greatness," said Rohan.

Indeed, while businesses are ringing up sales, they're satisfying the yearnings of millions of the faithful who want to remember John Paul II's greatness. Gogoi is a BusinessWeek Online reporter based in New York


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