Where to find the perfect gift for your 007 wannabe

Appealing to America's gadget fascination, spy shops that peddle

A few days ago, Jim had bought a device that would disguise his voice in telephone conversations. Problem was, the Voice Scrambler worked so well that nobody could understand a word Jim said.

So instead, Jim is buying a blow gun. He aims the 18-inch metal cylinder at a movie poster for the latest James Bond flick, puckers up his lips, and blows. Foop! A bright orange dart quivers right between Pierce Brosnan's eyes.

"That is just so cool," chuckles the middle-aged businessman, who declines to give his full name. "How could I not get this?"

It's just another day - and another satisfied customer - at the Spy Exchange, part of a $1 billion and growing industry that sells everything from video surveillance equipment and hidden weapons to manuals on how to hide your assets and disappear.

Critics may fault your local spy shop for peddling in paranoia, but the fact is spy shops are becoming common in even smaller cities, and are doing quite well, thank you, even as local and national crime rates continue to fall.

"One of the essentials of life is security," says Bill Zalud, executive editor of Security Magazine in Des Plaines, Ill. "So there's always a demand for it, whether there's a need for it or not."

Mr. Zalud is quick to note that spy shops are small potatoes compared with the overall $88 billion security industry, which includes everything from corporate security systems to home burglar alarms.

"It's not big dollars, but it's there," he says, "and when people get into that business, they tend to make a profit."

Located in a strip mall on a busy north Austin boulevard, the Spy Exchange is a candy store for snoops. Shoppers can choose from dozens of surreptitious microphones and video cameras - some hidden inside clocks, exit signs, smoke alarms, encyclopedias, and teddy bears.

Sales manager John Kennedy says the Spy Exchange serves two different kinds of customers. Nearly 85 percent of his customers - mostly professional private investigators or bounty hunters - never walk in the front door; they shop online. But a good portion of the rest are likely to be checking up on the ones they love.

"A lot of the people, they want to see what their spouses are doing," says Mr. Kennedy, noting that the single biggest-selling item is a tape recorder that allows a homeowner to monitor - or wiretap - his or her phone lines.

"We get a lot of nanny people too," that is, parents who want to monitor their children's nannies, he adds.

Legally speaking, some of these devices are on shaky ground since technology is forcing courts to define Americans' right to privacy. As such, Kennedy informs customers of existing state laws.

According to Texas' one-party consent laws, for instance, citizens have to be on the line with whomever they are taping. Oddly enough, no such law covers parabolic microphones, those dish-shaped "bionic ears" that allow you to "hear a conversation clearly 100 feet away," since such microphones merely enhance sounds that already can be heard. (Linda Tripp, take note.)

But snoops aren't the only ones with the cool toys. Some of Kennedy's hot-selling items are "countermeasures kits," for those who suspect they are being bugged by, say, their spouses.

Kennedy lifts out a black box with buttons and a voltage meter. "This one here is the TE-4200, one of our most popular items," he says. "With this you can check out your room to see if you're being tapped."

At this point, a customer wearing blue jeans, suspenders, and Ray-Ban sunglasses enters the store. He breezes past the line of disappearing-ink pens, the official CIA coffee mug (made in China), and the glass display case of crossbows, stun guns, and blades hidden inside combs, fountain pens, and walking canes. All he wants to see are the miniature video cameras.

"I want something that can fit inside my jacket without somebody seeing it," he tells the salesman.

Then, as if noticing his fellow shoppers for the first time, he lowers his voice. "Oh, maybe you ought to take care of them first."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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