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Wednesday, May 5,2010

Inglorious baubles

Dicker & Deal Nazi display raises red flag for shopper

by Lawrence Cosentino

Over the years, Aaron Fields has scored a cheap set of golf clubs, a stereo and other second-hand gear at Dicker and Deal on South Cedar.

One day last winter, the Lansing resident walked into the pawn shop hoping for a bargain on a calculator, but saw more than he bargained for: a salvo of swastikas bristling from a display of World War II military items under the electronics counter.


“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “My heart was in my throat.”


Fields, a 29-year-old Lansing Community College student, said he will miss the deals, but just can’t go back to the store.


The more he thought about it, the more it bothered him until he e-mailed us about it last month.


“I associate Nazi stuff with intolerance, with the Holocaust,” he said. “It just made me uncomfortable. It’s next to a room full of guns. Why is it there?”


Dicker & Deal owner Gary Potter said the answer is simple.


“I operate my stores as a combination of retail and a museum,” he said.


The case Fields saw, Potter said, belongs to the “museum” part of his labyrinthine store — hundreds of items, from teacups to stuffed owls, scattered through all the rooms, in locked glass cases marked “not for sale.”


In the bottom half of the case, military items, mostly from World War II, predominate. The Allies seem to have secured the case’s eastern sector, but Germans clearly hold the west. Crowded in an area about two feet by three feet are a triangular paper pennant emblazoned with a swastika, a conspicuous swastika armband, a tacky bust of a German officer, a metal silhouette of a crouching German soldier, three ceremonial daggers with swastikas (including an SS officer’s knife and a Hitler Youth knife) and several smaller Nazi items.


The case containing the Nazi stuff also has odds and ends such as vintage eyeglasses, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a Dick Tracy cap gun, and a huge pocket watch.


He said the Nazi paraphernalia has been there “for years,” with items added and subtracted now and then


“These are things of interest,” Potter said, waving to the case as a whole. Just looking at products, he said, can be boring.


“If that’s all he thinks it is, then he’s not thinking too clear or deeply about it,” Fields said. “There are implications to displaying that stuff.”


Potter also has a large flag, with five swastikas, on a wall in a stairwell leading to the store’s service area. The stairway is off limits to customers, but the flag is clearly visible, as is an American flag nearby.


“It’s a big ‘effing Nazi flag,” Fields said.


“People get offended about anything,” Potter said. “Here’s something that might offend somebody.” He went into the gun room and pointed to a waxy, stuffed sea turtle. “Some people think they’re endangered or something.”


“You can walk into anybody’s house and see a stuffed animal on the wall,” Fields said. “You don’t see swastikas.”


Potter said nobody has ever complained about the display.


“Maybe there’s a silent majority,” Potter said.


You may as well object to PBS showing a swastika as part of a documentary, Potter said. “It’s part of the culture, part of our history, part of the terrible things humans did,” Potter said.


When it comes to historical artifacts, Potter doesn’t think Nazi stuff is sui generis, but others feel differently. In Germany, Hungary, Poland, Brazil and some other countries, it’s a criminal offense to display Nazi paraphernalia and swastikas, with some exceptions. (These exceptions sometimes include in Hindu and Jainist temples, faiths that used the swastika as a symbol of good fortune long before the Third Reich made it infamous.)


There are no laws, rules, accepted practices or academic guidelines in the U.S. when it comes to displaying Nazi artifacts, according to Val Roy Berryman, history curator of the MSU Museum.


“There are no such things, not even for museums, that I’ve heard of,” he said.


The MSU Museum has a small collection of World War II-era German artifacts, including “a number of Nazi flags” that come out from time to time.


Berryman said he used some of the Nazi objects in a recent World War II anniversary exhibit about life on the home front.


“One part of it was the souvenirs the G.I.s brought back,” he said. “That was the context.”


There is one Nazi item Berryman declined to buy for the museum: Hitler’s personal swastika armband.


“Some G.I. took it off his desk,” Berryman said.


“It might have a great deal of value, but it’s hard to display something like that without glorifying in some way the person that wore it.”


Berryman contrasted Hitler’s own armband with the flags, daggers, collar pins, and other stuff that’s commonly bought and sold on the Internet or at military shows.


“These are heavily collected by collectors who are interested in various wars,” Berryman said. “It’s something that connects them with that era. It doesn’t mean they agreed with what the Nazis were doing.”


There’s at least one more display of Nazi stuff in town, but you have to bend over and look hard.


Collector Robert Splitstone of Lansing buys and sells all sorts of military stuff, including Nazi paraphernalia. He’s got a wide-ranging display at the Little Red Schoolhouse Craft and Antique Mall, just east of the Lansing Mall, but limits the Nazi stuff to a handful of small items, thrown onto a dinner plate in a glass case at about knee level.


There are some SS collar tabs, medals, a 1950s copy of a black SS ring (with skull), and — talk about the banality of evil — a Third Reich pickle fork.


Splitstone said nobody has objected to him about the merchandise, but he tries to keep it inconspicuous anyway.


“I’m not trying to offend anybody,” Splitstone said. “Armbands that have a great big swastika, big as a baseball — they can see it walking by, so I don’t put it out there.”


He’s got bigger stuff, including a resplendently repulsive ceremonial flag with five swastikas that’s worth thousands of dollars, but he saves that kind of thing for military shows. A small Polaroid photo of the big flag is tucked into the wall near Splitstone’s display.


Each February, Splitstone does a show in Louisville, Ky., with 1,632 tables of military merchandise — “everything from samurai armor to Vietnam.”


He started collecting when he was 13, when a man sold him a German SA dagger and a gun for $15.

Far
from fading away, vintage Nazi merchandise seems to be popping up more
and more, says Curious Book Shop owner Ray Walsh. Walsh suggested that
as the World War II generation passes, their descendants are
inheriting, or finding, objects they may not have known were in
grandpa’s closet.

Walsh compared Nazi stuff with racist books and porn — all radioactive from his perspective.


“I
don’t want to get a reputation for dealing with that kind of stuff,” he
said. “It’s hard enough to make a living without offending people who
come in the store.”


There’s
a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” at Curious, but it’s behind the
counter, with the expensive stuff, even though it’s priced at 40 bucks
and has no swastika on the spine.


Walsh
has put complete sets of Rudyard Kipling, with pre-Nazi swastikas on
the spine, on the literature shelf, knowing the tainted symbol might
give some uninformed people a start.


“You have to balance between offending people and censorship,” he said. “It’s touchy.”


When
deciding whether to display Nazi stuff at the MSU Museum, Berryman said
he asks himself one question: Can you use it in an exhibit to make a
point about history, and not use it just to shock and annoy people?


To Fields, that is where Potter went off base at Dicker and Deal. At a museum, Fields said, the context is clear, but at a retail store, it’s not.


Walsh
agreed.


“If you display it, it’s almost as if you’re promoting it,” he
said. He found Potter’s “museum” claim dubious. “You go there and it
doesn’t say, ‘Dicker and Deal Resale and Museum.’”


“It’s not endorsing
anything,” Potter said. “I’m just trying to make it an interesting place to come and hang out.”


At
the very least, Fields said, it’s “weird” that a business owner would
put Nazi stuff on display. “Obviously, you’re going to turn off some
segment of your customer base,” he said.


Potter
said he’s not worried about it.


“You can be disgusted with about
anything,” he said. “Look at the leather coats. If a person from PETA
came out here, they’d be upset. How can you get away from offending
some portion of society now?”




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