Chances are you have at least one memory created by Kyle “Skip” Smith, even though you don’t know him.
• That golden statuette of Lady Liberty with her torch raised you bought to commemorate your visit to New York? That was Skip.
• That multicolored photo frame with the famous Las Vegas sign you bought because not everything in Vegas stays in Vegas? That was Skip, too.
• That black-and-gold Universal Studios tote bag you bought to protect your smartphone while you sped through the splash zone on the Jurassic Park ride? All Skip.
• That Junior Ranger vest you bought for your grandchild at Mount Rainier National Park? You get the idea.
What you probably don’t have any memory of is Skip’s business — Smith Western Co. — perhaps the most visible invisible South Sound company you’ve never heard of.
Seventy-two years ago, Skip’s father, Kyle Smith, had just returned to Tacoma from WWII. From Ohio, he trained for the war at Fort Lewis. As a master sergeant in the infantry, he fought in Africa, Italy, and Germany. Later, he worked in special services booking entertainers to perform for U.S. troops in Europe and, with his camera, began taking photographs of movie stars and his travel stops. Kyle Smith knew entertainment. He played piano with various combos and orchestras throughout the South Sound — often at Fort Lewis and McChord Field.
He wanted to supplement his income, so in 1947 he began taking scenic photographs of Northwest sights and spectacles and turning them into postcards. From the back of his station wagon, Kyle Smith made a circuit of Northwest gift shops, selling and restocking his images.
Kyle Smith used to say we lived in the best part of the country to sell postcards, because the weather’s so bad here most of the year that tourists had to buy a Smith Western postcard of Mount Rainier to remember what they couldn’t see in person. Ha!
These days, sitting in the Smith Western showroom in a South Tacoma warehouse district, you won’t notice a postcard amid a visual cacophony of colorful clothing, caps, calendars, bags, backpacks, mugs, magnets, figurines, and glassware.
“Postcards,” Skip says, “that’s all changed with this.” He holds up his smartphone.
Fortunately, his father had diversified into wholesale distribution of branded merchandise. The family that has had the gift concession at the Statue of Liberty since 1931 has carried Smith Western products for decades since Kyle Smith introduced them.
Since Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opened in 1949, Smith Western has supplied the official gift store contractor with Seattle- and Washington-branded merchandise. Ever since the Space Needle opened in 1962 with the World’s Fair, Smith Western has had the merchandising contract.
Skip didn’t grow up thinking he’d fill the shoes of his father. After graduating from Lewis & Clark College roughly 50 years ago, Skip had options in mind as a banker, a lawyer, or a commercial pilot. Then dad, without pressure, told Skip he could join the family business if he wanted.
Being “the son of the boss,” Skip knew, meant he would have to work harder than someone else would to prove himself. And, boy, has he proved it.
In 1980, Skip paid a visit to behind-the-scenes Disney, where he saw how the company creative minds in the art department — the Imagineers — came up with ideas to merchandise the Mouse Dynasty. It opened his eyes.
“It blew me away what they did,” Skip said. “I saw the creativity and how they achieved it for the merch in their theme parks. We’ve created a situation where we do what Disney does without a theme park.”
Branding places and national attractions has become the business. Casinos in Las Vegas and Macao, Cirque du Soleil, the U.S. National Parks. Exclusive North American merchandiser for The Beatles — and Yoko Ono must approve every piece before it goes to market.
Want to know the next Smith Western invention that will hit the market in 2019?
Bluetooth speakers and phone chargers branded to match your vacation destination — a buffalo phone charger branded for Yellowstone National Park, a black bear phone charger branded as Mount Rainier National Park, a Bluetooth speaker shaped like a cruise ship for Carnival Cruise Line.
“It’s something fun no one has ever done,” Skip said. “We like to say, ‘We make memories.’”