Meet the man behind the shop most people aren’t allowed to visit

Katie Sanders

LANGLEY, VIRGINIA (The Washington Post) – There’s a room in the main building of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stocked with secret sauce. Barbecue sauce, that is. It’s available by the bottle: USD12.99 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 said 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 six-foot-six, 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 said, 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 said 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, said 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 non-profit 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 said.

Mark Wiggins is executive director of the CIA gift shop at CIA headquarters. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST