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‘Pin money’ is catching on

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Come February, the euro may no longer be the newest international currency. If Salt Lake City follows in the footsteps of Sydney, Nagano and Atlanta, the Olympic pin will become the dollar's newest competitor, if only for two weeks.

"Salt Lake will be shocked," promises Mel Bailey, five-time Olympic attendee and owner of Spirit of the Games, a Salt Lake store devoted to Olympic memorabilia. She says come Games time, Olympic pins will be "worth more than any monetary system."

Bret Almassy, owner of Dare to Dream, another Olympic memorabilia store in Salt Lake City, says he discovered the power of the pin in Atlanta when he traded 200 pins for a chance to walk with Tajikistan's team in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Games.

Since then, Almassy says he has traded pins for team sportswear, plane tickets, parking places, food, mattresses and taxi rides.

Bailey says the right pin at the right time is nearly omnipotent. When used to bribe a maitre d' for a last-minute reservation, a flight attendant for a ticket upgrade or a hotel clerk for a room, the pin becomes a sort of Olympic golden ticket.

Though Bailey and Almassy say Utah has been slow to accept pins as payment, there are a few Utahns who are already doing business in the new currency.

Barry Sanders, a professional pin trader from Atlanta, says he has been trading pins for hotel rooms on recent visits to Salt Lake City.

Afifa Ahmad, owner of The City Market Place and Deli, has been trading food for pins for more than a year now. Ahmad's pins, "three big boxfuls," are located near her counter at the deli. Ahmad says a pin need only be Olympic-related to qualify as legal tender. She says she will even trade food for pins that she already has in her collection.

"I need them for trading," she says.

Of course not all pins are created equal in this new pin economy. Come Games time, each pin will have a specific bartering value based entirely on demand, Bailey says. Thus far, the green Jell-O pin has set the gold standard for these Games, but Bailey is confident things will change.

Controversy, Bailey says, will decide which pins will get Olympic-goers into the best parties. She says the two most popular pins in Sydney and Atlanta were involved in lawsuits due to Olympic copyright infringement.

And the more offensive the better, Bailey says. She laments the fact that her own "Prozac Pin," a green and white snowboard labeled "happy times," patterned after the Prozac pill, was shot down by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Bailey is hoping to see some of her other pins, including a Murray Smokestack Pin, circulating during the Games.

For their part, hotel managers are dubious about the bartering system. Tim Estes, manager of Hotel Monaco, says his hotel will not be accepting pins as payment.

"I can't tell you who would swap pins for currency," Estes said. "It is certainly not the case here."

Restaurant managers, on the other hand, seem more open to pin swapping.

Patrick Cashman, a manager at the New Yorker Club, a private club in downtown Salt Lake City, said he has, as yet, no plans to accept pins as payments. "But we are fans of pins," he hastened to add.

Karen Olson, manager and owner of the Metropolitan Restaurant, passed up the opportunity to create an Olympic pin to trade with customers, "But I could see it happening," she said.

In addition to crossing fiscal barriers, the pins also cross barriers of language and culture.

Almassy says the dialogue of pin trading requires only fingers to point with and a nod to seal the deal. The pins, therefore, become a sort of universal ambassador. "It's a sign of friendship and good will," he said, "to give a pin for a pin."

E-MAIL: joliver@desnews.com