Pin trading reaches fever pitch; Collectors lured by mementos reflecting Olympics, green Jell-O

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SALT LAKE CITY – “You’re an artist, aren’t you? I can tell you’re an artist. That’s the kind of pin an artist, a sophisticated collector would want.”

Marlee Baker, one of the many people hawking Olympic pins on the streets of Salt Lake City, is doing a marvelous job. She’s got Pamela Thomas hooked on a small black pin from the 1992 Barcelona Games.

“Collecting pins is like an art form,” Baker tells her, standing behind a pin featuring the head of Fred Flintstone. “You have to appreciate art to get into it.”

Baker, a former massage therapist who lives in Branson, Mo., is a key cog in the enormous Olympics pin-trading machinery. Every day, from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., she and a few of her colleagues have 10,000 pins for sale. And she does a brisk business.

“It starts out as an impulse buy for people,” she said. “Then they get the fever and they keep buying more.”

When she discusses pin trading, the most common word out of Baker’s mouth is fever. As in: “I sell a lot of pins for just $1 or $2, so people can buy them up and start to get the fever.” Or: “In Sydney, people just didn’t have the fever. It was sad, because pin trading is an Olympic event as much as anything else.”

Thomas, the woman Baker sold on pin trading as art form, is the latest victim of the fever. She bought the Barcelona pin for $5, adding it to the 20 others in her pocket.

“They’re just really cool! It’s addictive,” she said before warning her mother: “Don’t let me go near another pin stand.”

Pins are everywhere at these Games, setting off metal detectors and launching appreciative oohs and aahs. It’s not unusual to see people walking around town with a hundred or more pins attached to a vest or jacket. They feature everything from television networks to Olympic events to nearby burger joints.

Marguerite Harrington, a former Houstonian now living in Salt Lake City, asked Baker if she had any Texas-themed pins. “I didn’t get the fever until a couple of weeks ago,” she said, unprompted. “Now I’ve got about 50 pins.” She lowers her voice and leans in:

“I’ve got the green Jell-O pin.”

As soon as you hear someone mention pins in Salt Lake City, start silently counting to yourself. By the time you reach 20, chances are someone will have mentioned the green Jell-O pin, which achieved legendary status within days of the Games’ opening.

The pin – which portrays a simple bowl of lime gelatin, Utah’s official state snack food – might be worth 20 or 30 cents in raw materials. But in the artificial tulip-bulb economy of the Olympics, it might as well be solid gold.

“There’s a lady down the street who sold a Jell-O pin for $200,” Baker confides, although she notes that is “unconfirmed.” A typical street quote for a green Jell-O range is about $150. They originally sold for $7.50.

Of course, the market for Olympic pins is always artificially inflated during the Games. Once it is only the hard-core collectors still interested in trading, prices drop. In 1996, a particular onion-ring pin was going for $1,500 in Atlanta. “Now people who have them ask, ‘How much can I get for it?’ ” Baker said. “Good

As in real estate, the three most important factors in successful pin trading are location, location, location, and Baker snagged a terrific spot on a busy street downtown. She and her trading colleagues have taken over a portion of a parking lot – which, considering the value of a good parking spot around here, shows the
economic might of pin trading.

Despite all the time she spends around pins, she maintains the distance required of someone in the business. “I’ve learned I can’t get attached. You might have to trade it away.” Between puffs on her cigarette, she does speak longingly of a silver-and-gold snowflake pin she swapped a few days ago: “I traded it and it broke my heart. But that’s what you do.”

She’s been trading since the Los Angeles Games in 1984, which she considers the fever’s “absolute peak.” The Nagano Games in 1998 were also a strong year: “A pin is a small piece of art, which meant they could fit into their tiny Japanese houses,” Baker said.