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From crucifixes to bottle-openers: Memorabilia vendors prep for new pope

Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

Souvenirs are displayed at a stand near the Vatican on March 9.

ROME, Italy -- It is a significant event in world history, so what better way to commemorate the choosing of a new pope than with a decorative plate, or maybe a set of prayer cards and matching rosary beads?

While officials at the Vatican began physical preparations for the papal conclave, including the installation on Saturday of the chimney stack from which white smoke will indicate the new pope, Rome’s souvenir industry was also making plans.

Vendors said tens of thousands of ornaments and posters bearing the image of the new pope are expected to be on sale – sometimes within hours of the announcement of his name.

“As soon as the new pope is chosen, our suppliers are ready to go to work straight away – boom, boom, boom, just like that,” explained Rosanna Barone, a sales assistant at one of the shops and stalls that line the Via della Conciliazione, the thoroughfare linking St Peter’s Basilica to the west bank of the River Tiber.

“Some of the things are made in Rome and we can have them quickly,” she said. “For the cards and maybe mugs, things that are easier to make, maybe we will have them the next day or the day after.”

Alabaster figurines, typically made in Italy’s Tuscany region, and items from China will take longer.

Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

Souvenirs are displayed on a stand on the Via della Concilizione near the Vatican on March 9.

Even for a storied city that attracts tourists year-round, the sheer range of religious keepsakes, icons and trinkets on offer on the Via della Conciliazione and around St Peter’s Square is a remarkable sight.

From crucifixes to cigarette-lighters, key-rings to refrigerator magnets, all manner of items come adorned with the pope’s face or signature.

Among the items on sale on Saturday were a Pope Benedict XVI bottle-opener ($5), an ashtray featuring St Peter’s Basilica ($6.50) and a pair of men’s polyester boxer shorts with an anatomically-enhanced image of Michaelangelo’s Statue of David ($2.50).

At the other end of the scale, pilgrims can choose from table-top nativity scenes ($110), official certificates blessed by the Vatican ($35, plus postage) or a 3-foot ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary ($685).

It’s a serious business both for the small stalls and shops, and the Vatican itself. More than 5 million tourists see inside the Vatican’s grounds and museums every year – almost as many as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museum tickets and official merchandise sales contributed most of the Vatican City state’s $113 million income in 2011, keeping its accounts in the black: it made a $12.m surplus.

The unexpected abdication of Pope Benedict created a headache, but also an opportunity.

The cardinals will fill out ballots in the Sistine Chapel until all 77 ballots – two-thirds plus one of the cardinal electors – reach a consensus. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

An official set of stamps commemorating the sede vacante – the period during that the church is without a leader – was on sale Saturday for $32.

“That is a big seller, a collector’s item,” said Maria, sales assistant in a store on the Piazza del Papa Pio XII.

Also becoming collector’s items  were the Pope Benedict XVI 2014 calendar and the official Vatican Pope Benedict XVI 2013 diary.

Who buys all these items?

“Our biggest customers are Spanish,” said Mario Rosid, 54, who has run a stall in the shadow of the Vatican for almost 25 years.

The most popular items? “Anything with John Paul II,” he said. “He is the most popular.”

That was echoed by Barone, who said rosary beads, key-rings and other keepsakes with John Paul II’s picture outsold those of Benedict XVI ten-fold. Many items feature the name or picture of both the last two popes.

About half the souvenirs are made in Italy, with the rest mostly from China, where factories are expected to begin making items with the face of the next pope as soon as the announcement is made.

Chen Shaojiang, from Tiantai Tantou Huanan Craft Factory, which exports Catholics keepsakes to Europe and the United States, is capable of producing up to 300,000 sets of rosary beads a month. He said it would take up to 25 days to ship new items.

The gap doesn’t worry Rome’s street vendors.

“It’s the Vatican, and people will always come here, whoever is the pope,” said Rosid. “The different name doesn’t matter to people. The pope is the pope is the pope.”

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