The Treachery of the ‘Ol Tourist Custom Tee Trap

J.M. Lesinski

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In traveling, one may seek to broaden their horizons, or simply get away from it all. No matter the preference, coming back with a souvenir or something to remember the trip by often comes with the newfound experience.

Both seasoned and casual travelers alike should be familiar with the ins and outs of picking up a souvenir here and there. Every individual is different, but on the whole, everyone who buys a souvenir obviously doesn’t want two things: 1) to get ripped off, and 2) to have something that lasts.

One commonly acquired souvenir available at almost any tourist-heavy area is the t-shirt. In terms of practicality, the t-shirt makes for a perfect souvenir as both functional clothing for those who must find purpose in every purchase, and as an item to show fondness of a visited locale.

In my travels, one red flag souvenir store has always been the store that exclusively sells tee shirts. More specifically, the store that advertises they print whatever graphic the consumer wants right there in the store.

Case in point, there are several of these types of shops along Venice Beach. During graduate school, a roommate of mine named Ramon and I went to Venice one weekend back in 2014. After an hour of looking for parking, we were finally able to walk up and down the beach and boardwalk alike.

One of the defining features about these “pay to print” tee shirt shops is the storefront. They put all the relevant or tee shirts with the most curb appeal to the front, usually having six or seven huge displays before one can even go in the store. At the famous Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, a similar shop employed a miniature billboard to host their newest tee designs. The curb appeal is usually enough to get some passersby to stop and take a look at something even slightly appealing to their taste.

That’s where the curbside salesperson swoops in. From Myrtle Beach to Venice Beach, every single pay to print tee shirt stand has one of these soulless cash vacuums. Salesmanship is a rare technique to be gifted in, let alone charisma, but these individuals are usually the best at what they do.

Back to Venice. Ramon and I were passing by one of the several tee shirt shops along the boardwalk when he took one glance towards the shop. The curbside sales guy came at us like a fullback. In less than a second, he was by our side, asking Ramon which shirt he was “most interested in.”

Both of us being college age, we didn’t smell the sense of urgency to make a sale wafting off this guy. Once Ramon gave him an answer, he ushered us inside in less than five seconds. The speed of the grift is really where this particular instance makes the most impact.

Once inside, the layout becomes overwhelming. This Venice “pay to print” tee shirt shop had every kind of tee shirt, article of clothing, anything that could be customized. The walls had thousands of designs, boasting the LA and California-specific ones up front, but keeping old favorites like cartoon characters or sayings peppered throughout as well. Important note: all of the articles of clothing were marked for only $10.

From the pessimist’s point of view, one has to wonder how a store can stay open exclusively selling only discount clothing for $10 a pop. Even from an optimist’s standpoint, one can’t fathom that much profitability after resale value.

Ramon, a then football player for Fresno State, began getting chatted up by his salesman. The conversation went from the sale to this strange “personal fluffing” that only served to distract and make Ramon feel good about himself.

At this point, I began to notice the treachery. On one teeny tiny sign way in the back of the store, the prices for printing on the tee shirts were listed. The flat rate during this time in 2014 was $70 to print a graphic of any size on any article of clothing.

Keep in mind, this entire time I have been in the store less than thirty seconds. The speed and efficiency of these grifters caught up with me once they noticed I was looking around. A second salesman approached me, less in your face than the first, but incessantly chatty.

Before I could stop Ramon, he was already picking out the design he wanted. At the same time, my new sales guy was asking what I was looking for. Again, being a dumb college kid, I found a tye dye tank top I liked.

When I asked the salesman if I could buy just the shirt with no graphic, he insisted I get something. He never directly said I couldn’t buy the shirt without a graphic, but it became implied once Ramon’s salesman stepped in on our conversation.

This salesman pushed a simple “Venice Beach” logo in stenciled writing on me. I called him on the $70 for five seconds of printing price and he dodged that with a “every print is different” response. By this point, Ramon’s t-shirt was already in the flat iron contraption getting the graphic put on, and mine was on the way to the back.

The guy working the tee shirt grill gave Ramon his $80 tee shirt and informed us that once it’s stamped it has essentially been bought. When Ramon politely said they should be more direct about the price, both of our salesmen mysteriously vanished, and the guy working the tee shirt grill actually threatened to sue us if we didn’t pay.

I should also add, the second Ramon’s tee came off the press, I told the guy I didn’t want mine. Magically, the same tank top I tried to stop buying emerged from the back room in the hands of a third salesman. They had a second tee shirt grill the whole time.

Being dumb college kids, we took the threat of litigation too seriously, and shelled out $80 for our $10 at best tee shirts. We left the store very angry, the salesmen doing the same thing to every passerby as we left.

The real kicker to end the story: at another shop, Ramon’s tee shirt got stolen when he set it down for a second. Gotta love Venice. Be smart, avoid the custom print tee shops in the tourist areas. You’ll be gauged silly.

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Professional journalist for over five years, covering topics all up and down both coasts of the United States, including arts, music, food, politics, and culture. I have a B.A. in English from SUNY Fredonia with minors in Psychology and Creative Writing, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

Buffalo, NY
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