Jim Warlick is a collector of political memorabilia, and the owner of White House Gifts, a souvenir store in Washington located across from the White House. As many as 3,000 people a day visit the store to purchase presidential memorabilia, trinkets and other gifts.
Warlick’s father, a Democrat and a history buff, worked in politics, and in 1965, the family took a trip to the nation’s capital.
“I was in the eighth grade and I wanted to come see John Kennedy’s grave site. While I was here, I purchased a little John Kennedy bust. It’s the symbol of my first souvenir and I think that the Kennedy assassination really affected me into being aware of politics.”
Warlick grew up in a little town in North Carolina called Morgantown. He went to community college there then went to the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He dropped out of college four times to work on campaigns and travel with candidates.
“I went to Raleigh and got a job in the legislature working on a Senate Sergeant at Arms staff while I was in school, and I really like this fellow from Greensboro North Carolina who’d been chairman the first Civil Rights Commission, very progressive. And he decided to run for the Senate against Jesse Helms. And so, he asked me to come help in the campaign, and I lived with the Senator Smith and his family for a year,” he says. “We didn’t stay in hotels when traveling, we stayed with people, because we wanted to hear what people in the community was saying. I learned from Senator Smith that you need to stay close and listen a lot.”
Warlick says he believed that he would end up being an advisor for a congressman or senator, but that didn’t happen.
In 1980, Warlick designed campaign buttons for President Jimmy Carter. Though he knew there was also a market for buttons for Carter’s opponent, Ronald Reagan, Warlick wouldn’t produce them. “I’m a Carter man,” he said.
“I went to the Republican convention in Detroit and sold campaign buttons on the street corner, making more money in one week than I did in a year working for the congressman,” says Jim Warlick. “So, I went back home and I said, ‘Congressman, I have to quit, because I’m traveling and seeing the country, and I want to sell buttons all over the country.’”
Warlick decided to expand his business, and in 1989, he opened a memorabilia shop in Washington called Political Americana.
“Bill Clinton used to come by,” Warlick says. “He would come into town for fundraisers and he would always stop by the kiosk and buy all my Truman buttons. He was a big Harry Truman fan, and collected memorabilia. Hillary used to buy buttons for him, too.”
Warlick produced and distributed buttons, posters, and stickers for the Clinton campaign in 1992 and 1996. In 2001, he began buying political artifacts: First Lady gowns; a limousine that President Kennedy used in Fort Worth, Texas, Kennedy’s shaving kit, and one of the pens Kennedy used to sign the Peace Corps Act. Then, there was the Boeing 747 that had been John Edwards campaign plane, and an Oval Office replica built by Warner Brothers.
“I have a great catalog of stories, books and collectibles,” says Warlick. “It’s a nonpartisan tribute to Presidential history.”
Warlick recently opened an ice cream shop named ‘Presidential Scoops.’ Located across from the White House Gift store, the shop offers 16 flavors, all named after different presidents.
Warlick auctioned off his collection of airplanes and other items, to use the profits for a museum he is working to establish in his hometown in North Carolina.
“The most important thing left for me to do now is a history museum dedicated to honoring mill workers, furniture workers, hosiery mill and textile workers. My mother worked in the hosiery mill. Named ‘The Worker’s Legacy Exhibition,’ it is going to tell the history of all the workers and what their life was like back then.”