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Here's a timely riddle: What's flat and yellow and patriotic all over?

Hint: You've seen it on roads and in parking lots all over Western New York.

It's so popular, in fact, that some people sport more than one on their bumpers. Some unlucky motorists have even lost theirs to thieves.

The answer is the "ribbon magnet," that stick-on bumper decoration that's all but ubiquitous in the Buffalo area these days.

It's a wartime phenomenon, creators of the magnets say.

"It's a way people can show their support for something they believe in," said Dwain Guillon, co-owner of Magnet America, the North Carolina company that first came up with the idea.

Say what you want about these little ribbon-shaped magnets, which sell for $1 to $5, but you've got to admit: people in Western New York just love 'em.

"I think it's a patriotic thing," said Jean Carpenter, a Snyder resident who picked one up last week at a local gift shop. "Just like we put a flag out on our house."

Contrary to a popular misconception, however, money from the sale of the magnets does not go automatically to support U.S. troops in Iraq. Some magnets are sold as fund-raising items, but those efforts are fragmented, localized charities.

The magnetized car doodads come in a few varieties.

There's plain yellow -- the most basic, which means you're remembering those fighting in Iraq. Then there are yellow ribbons with words on them: "Support Our Troops" and "Pray for Our Troops" are the most popular.

Ribbons striped with red, white and blue colors are available, too.

You can even order camouflage ribbons, or personalize a ribbon by adding the name of a specific serviceman or servicewoman.

Now that the yellow magnets are so popular, lots of other ribbon colors are becoming available: pink for breast cancer awareness, black for POWs/MIAs, blue for child-abuse awareness, and so on.

"I said, I'll have to get a pink one now, because my daughter is a breast cancer survivor," said Terry Giacovelli, who got a yellow ribbon last week for her car. "There are so many of them on the cars."

The ribbon magnet arrived in Buffalo a little bit later than in other places across the country. But now it's selling like mad in the Buffalo region.

At Jainlee Collectibles and Gift Boutique in Snyder, co-owner Dave Kelbaugh normally sells the magnets for $5 -- and they sell "very, very well," he said.

But last week, Kelbaugh was giving them away to customers, for free, as a goodwill gesture.

"We just decided it's an item that would be best if we gave it away," said Kelbaugh, who owns the Harlem Road shop with Hyunja Lee. "We just decided this is something people shouldn't pay for."

He expected to give away about a thousand of the magnets in the span of a few days and planned to repeat the promotion again soon.

Locally and nationwide, the ribbon magnets are also being used as a fund-raising tool.

That's how Judith Karovski came to buy hers. The West Seneca resident, a school nurse, bought her yellow magnet for $5 from a teacher who was selling them to raise funds to buy phone cards for the troops.

Karovski's ribbon, alas, was stolen off her car shortly after she stuck it on.

"I had it no more than two weeks," she said. "How petty."

Buffalo police have reported incidents of ribbon magnets being stolen in South Buffalo, on the West Side, and in the Riverside area. In an incident last month, some kids were picked up in South Buffalo for stealing 25 to 30 magnets off parked cars, said South District Officer Anthony LeBron.

LeBron called the thefts a case of "kids being ignorant."

The magnetized ribbon magnet is a recent phenomenon.

In North Carolina, Guillon said his company first developed the magnets after the owner of a local printing company read in the newspaper about a shortage of yellow cloth ribbon. He came up with the idea of a magnetized ribbon. Guillon's company -- a family business he runs with his father and brothers -- makes vinyl magnets, and so the two companies collaborated on the project.

Ribbon magnets debuted in the spring of 2003. Since then, Magnet America has sold more than 2 million of them -- and that's just the yellow "Support Our Troops" variety.

Now two local men are trying to get in on the fervor.

Town of Tonawanda resident Russell Ward and his brother, John Ward of Buffalo, have developed a three-piece stick-on "bumper protector" that spells out "Support Our Troops."

Their product, which they are manufacturing through Allentown Industries, both decorates and protects a car bumper, and reflects light, they said. They plan to sell it retail for $9.95.

And, Russell Ward said, their new company, Glowmir, will work with veterans' groups to distribute the product free to help the veterans them raise funds.

"It's sort of a way to give back to the community," he said.


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