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Inauguration Vendors See Slower Year Than 2009

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WASHINGTON -- There was no mistaking the fact that this year's inauguration was more modest than the sea of humanity that was Washington in 2009, especially for the vendors who invaded the city with t-shirts, calenders and other knickknacks, hoping to catch another Obama-fueled payday.

"I guess the nostalgia wore off," said Bunny, a 52-year-old vendor on Pennsylvania Avenue who declined to give his full name.

Bunny and his brother had hauled a van full of custom-made Barack Obama inaugural calendars ($4) down from Baltimore in the wee hours of Monday morning. The pair set up in the same exact spot, right in front of the Burrito Brothers restaurant on Capitol Hill, that they'd chosen on this same day four years ago.

But while he enjoyed steady foot traffic in 2009, Bunny said, this year there were moments when the sidewalk slowed to a trickle. If he couldn't unload his 2013 Inaugural calendars by nightfall, Bunny figured he'd get saddled with them.

"I thought it would be a lot of people this year. It just didn't happen," the dreadlocked Bunny said, hanging out of the passenger side of his van. "Four years ago, it was bigger and better."

After lowering an earlier estimate, D.C.'s homeland security director anticipated between 500,000 and 700,000 people would show up for this year's inauguration -- a tremendous crowd, to be sure, but nothing like four years ago, when nearly 2 million people jammed into the National Mall and downtown D.C. for the ceremonies.

Of course, Obama's second Inauguration doesn't have the historic heft of 2009. After four years of the messy business of governing, plenty of even Obama's most ardent supporters apparently took a pass on the trip to Washington this time around.

Nonetheless, Marvin Hale-Bay made the trek all the way from New York in hopes of selling his Obama-themed framed posters. Two versions had been selling reasonably well -- one, titled "Thinkers" that showed Obama alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Bob Marley (popular with men, Hale-Bay noted), and another that showed the president and first lady having their dance at the 2009 inaugural ball (popular with women, he said). But overall, business was a bit disappointing.

"It's kind of slow," Hale-Bey said. "Last time it was colder, but there were more people."

"Something's gonna happen," he said hopefully. "Maybe they just don't want to carry this stuff in [to the ceremony]?"

A man selling t-shirts down the block from Hale-Bey said many of the people who'd approached him had actually been reporters.

"They all wanna know how my day's been going," the man said. "You must be number 31."

Near the Capitol, Pennsylvania Avenue was packed with vans, SUVs and pickups with out-of-state plates, with owners who had set up folding tables covered in inaugural merch. They came from North Carolina, Georgia, even Tennessee. They sold t-shirts that said "Obama, Back to Back" ($10); pins that showed Michelle Obama on the cover of Essence magazine ($3); tote bags emblazoned with a picture of the first family ($5); and "Official Inaugural Programs" ($5) that looked something less than official.

Many of them had plastered their autos with the same sign advertising "2013 Inauguration Swag" -- a sign that, curiously, one man was trying to sell as an item unto itself (two for $5).

They were all hoping to head home this evening with a lot less cargo, although it soon became clear the items wouldn't be flying off the tables like they did in 2009. After Obama's speech, the price of pins dropped from $3 to $2. Vendors started shouting "everything must go" and "going out of business."

"I may head back early this afternoon," said Freeman, a vendor from Atlanta who was overstocked with Obama tote bags and calendars. He said his next decent merchandise day wouldn't be until St. Patrick's Day.

A few mobile vendors tried wheeling their carts closer to the Capitol in hopes of getting more foot traffic. For some the strategy quickly backfired, as police there began demanding to see vendor licenses. (Many people selling merchandise said the police were checking credentials in a way they hadn't in 2009.)

One vendor said his friend who'd been selling flags was arrested when police ran his name and found an outstanding warrant.

For Lawrence Taylor, a Washington resident with a table full of t-shirts and other memorabilia, it was hard not to compare this year to the more upbeat 2009. Taylor's table held a stack of yellowed, four-year-old Washington Times and Washington Post newspapers commemorating Obama's first Inauguration. Taylor was selling the back issues for $2 apiece.

As of early afternoon, he'd sold four of them total.

"It's really slow," Taylor said.

And as if he needed another reminder that this wasn't 2009, a pair of plainclothes police officers soon showed up at his table. They wore badges around their necks and surveyed the Obama t-shirts laid out in front of them.

"Do you happen to have a D.C. vendor license?" one of them asked.

With that, Taylor started packing up his wares.

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