May 8, 2014 in City

Doug Clark: Expo ’74 merchandise a lasting gift for White Elephant

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

The White Elephant on North Division still sells a dwindling supply of Expo ’74 souvenirs.
(Full-size photo)

With all the Expo ’74 nostalgia going around, I’d like to reminisce about the biggest failure to come out of our just-turned-40-years-old world’s fair.

And by failure I mean all those Expo souvenirs that were supposed to one day become highly valuable and make trinket hoarders like me filthy rich.

What happened?

Like many Spokane lifers out there, I tucked away a trove of Expo ashtrays, teacups and commemorative dinner plates under the delusion that they might be worth something someday.

I should’ve invested in Beanie Babies.

A check with the online auction site eBay showed that the Expo artifact market is still in the tank.

As in …

• Amtrak Expo ’74 postcard – No Bids.

• Expo ’74 jewelry charm – No Bids.

• Expo brass frying pan – No Bids.

• Expo puzzle, cufflinks and belt buckle – No Bids.

The sad fact is that only one man has ever made a killing from investing in Expo bric-a-brac.

John Conley.

Conley is the owner/founder of Spokane’s landmark White Elephant store, 1730 N. Division St., and later a second Spokane Valley store, 12614 E. Sprague Ave.

Conley is living proof that timing is everything in business.

The timing that matters here came after the fair closed in the fall of 1974. Conley was offered a chance to buy the leftover merchandise.

All 280,000 pieces of leftover merchandise, namely.

“They said, ‘You gotta buy this stuff; they’re going to haul it off to some foreign country,’ ” he recalled.

Conley swallowed hard and pulled the trigger.

He doesn’t like to talk about what he paid, but it was a fraction of the retail value.

“I filled an entire big barn with it, you know,” he added.

Soon, the White Elephant became famous as the after-fair outlet for Expo ’74 stuff.

Three months.

That’s how long it took for Conley to get his money back. Everything after that has been gravy.

“It helped put our kids through school,” said Conley’s wife, Mary.

Which is no small thing considering the Conleys had 11 children.

Amazing though it may seem, the White Elephant still offers Expo souvenirs for sale.

I know. Wednesday morning found me inside the store, marveling at the White Elephant’s seemingly endless supply of items that date back to bellbottom jeans and the fall of Nixon.

Items at below-eBay prices, no less.

It was all too much for me. After browsing a few minutes, I started adding to my Expo portfolio.

View-master picture reels. A world’s fair flag. A blue-and-white plastic binder. An official Expo Site map. An “I Was There” banner. A blue plastic wallet.

An in-the-box ashtray emblazoned with the U.S. Pavilion. Another ashtray, this one showing off the falls, the Clocktower and the gondola rides.

A box containing salt-and-pepper shakers made to look like miniature beer steins.

And best of all, a brand new “Official Souvenir Program,” with special hello from Expo President King Cole.

“Welcome to Expo ’74, the first World’s Fair on the environment and the only international exposition scheduled in the United States during the Bicentennial Era,” Cole greeted.

Wow. This is exciting.

According to page 33, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace and Harry Belafonte are coming. I can’t wait.

This cool program, by the way, sold to fairgoers in 1974 for two bucks.

White Elephant’s 2014 price? Two bucks.

No kidding. Altogether these fine additions to my Expo collection cost me $14.11, with tax.

You can see why nobody’s getting rich on Expo ’74 swag.

Well, almost nobody. The guy who was savvy enough to buy it all 40 years ago is doing just fine.

“I want it to last forever,” Conley said of his Expo mother lode.

Bet you do, John. I’ll bet you do.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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