Meet the man behind the store most people aren't allowed to visit: the CIA gift shop
By KATIE SANDERS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 2, 2019
LANGLEY, Va. — There's a room in the main building of the Central Intelligence Agency stocked with secret sauce. Barbecue sauce, that is. It's available by the bottle: $12.99 plus tax, complete with a "Top Secret" label and the official CIA seal. Nearby are a display of infant onesies stamped "the result of an UNDERCOVER operation"; a rack of ties designed to look like burn bags (the bags government spies ignite to disappear classified materials); and a basket of plush "secret squirrels" inspired by the ones scurrying about on the Langley grounds.
"We like wordplay and fun things," Mark Wiggins says of the merchandise. Wiggins is executive director of the CIA gift shop, a one-of-a-kind souvenir store that most of the world can't visit. He greets me and a photographer — and our entourage of plainclothes security chaperones — at the door to the unmarked space in the Original Headquarters Building, past the Directors Gallery, a wall of portraits of the men who've headed the agency since its 1947 founding (Gina Haspel's portrait is not up yet).
At 6-foot-6, Wiggins rivals the height of the sauce display. Affable and casual, he's sporting a red polo shirt emblazoned with the agency's circular blue logo that matches the shirts hanging in the shop's golf section.
"All right, let's go," he says, and with a coach's zeal, he starts our tour at the "tchotchke wall" — his nickname for popular quick grabs, such as seal-emblazoned Bic lighters. Packages of fudge, pecans and a handful of CIA challenge coins — brass medallions commemorating various events and units — line the mahogany shelves. "Collect 'em. Gift 'em. Just have them because they're new and awesome," Wiggins says of the collectible coins, which also keep the store competitive with other government agency gift shops that carry their own.
If you're wondering whether there might be some friendly rivalry with, say, the shops at the National Security Agency or the White House, well, yes, there is, says Wiggins. But he has it from "unnamed outside sources" that the CIA shop is the best, of course.
The press officer trails us with an agency-issued recording device (an old-school Olympus mic). There may be all sorts of spy toys for sale, but the shop itself is low-tech, with no outside cellphones or recording devices allowed. That's fine with Wiggins. Security protocols function as de facto tech cleanses.
The shop, which started as a basement pop-up in 1957, is the revenue-generating arm of the CIA's nonprofit Employee Activity Association. Now its vibe is similar to a college bookstore's: a one-stop purveyor of canteen staples, office supplies, giftables and spirited swag. In a building dedicated to intelligence gathering and national security, Wiggins considers his shop a refuge from occupational stress. Come for stamps, aspirin, a last-minute anniversary bracelet. Add some Vera Bradley or Under Armour to your wardrobe. Grab a light-up tumbler. A beanie. A hug. "There's a level of happiness and joy in my store," he says.
Outside his 9-to-5, Wiggins, 52, is a motivational speaker, a self-improvement author and a leadership coach. On social media, he's "The Speaker Man." A former basketball player for the University of Alabama at Huntsville, he has a podcast called "Off the Bench" encouraging people "to move to the starting lineup of life."
His on-the-job persona is more low-key. Here, his identity isn't exactly classified information, but it's not highly publicized, either: He works mostly behind the scenes, from his basement office or at trade shows. He came to the nation's most exclusive swag shop 15 years ago after a career in retail that included stints with Levi Strauss and Foot Locker and owning a custom cookie shop franchise.
The No. 1 question people ask him upon hearing where he works is, "How can I shop there?" Put simply: Anyone is welcome to peruse the merchandise online, but actual shopping is restricted to agency employees, a shortlist of vetted visitors and, once a year, employee family members. An addendum: "If you can get past the M17s," Wiggins laughs, "come on down."
To hit his sales goals, he leads his 12-person team on a continuous search for goods that will fly from the shelves. It's a process he refers to as sourcing and selling "hotness." If he finds a customizable item he thinks would do well, he places an order and gives the vendor permission for the CIA logo to be used only on his purchase. Louisville Slugger baseball bats, available with the seal and custom engraving, are hot retirement and holiday gifts. Branded glassware is always a big seller.
"We can't keep this in at all," he says, leading the way to a wall chockablock with CIA-logoed old-fashioned glasses, stemless wine sets, decanters and steins. He travels the country curating items, from chocolate bars to Waterford crystal sets to Air Force One Flight Attendant dolls.
"We have to be different and unique because the agency is that," Wiggins says. He'll try out a lot of merchandise to achieve that end, but there are limits. Old-timers occasionally still inquire, for example, about glow-in-the-dark logoed boxers, he tells me, shaking his head. He retired underwear upon taking over. And not everything carries the CIA brand: Plenty of employees won't go near merchandise that identifies where they work, so, along with the Top Secret barbecue sauce, for instance, Wiggins also carries the General's Hot Sauce, an American brand that donates to military veterans organizations and is available online.
On Family Day, the time-honored annual occasion when agency employees are encouraged to bring relatives to their workplace, the gift shop is the can't-miss attraction. Parents, kids and siblings tend to be less bashful than their loved ones about advertising the agency, so they take advantage of the opportunity to get their fix of CIA-branded goodies. For months before this year's September festivities, Wiggins's team loaded the stock room with inventory, from prints of the art lining agency corridors to the best-selling logoed mugs showcased in Hollywood spy flicks.
In-house CIA historian David Welker has watched the gift shop evolve over his 35 years at Langley. He doesn't own a logoed item, but his 85-year-old mom picked up a CIA sweatshirt at Family Day years ago that she still wears to the gym, he says. Though Welker visits the shop regularly, he doesn't actually know who's behind its operations. He's never given much thought to the logistics. "An unseen hand magically guides this store," he says. "Things just appear, and you're always grateful whenever you walk in."