Ryan Gregg and Rishi Narayan already have two stores in town specializing in U-M insignia clothing–their original Underground Printing location on South University, and Moe Sport Shop on North University, which they purchased from the VanDeWege family last spring. That didn’t stop them from opening a third in early September–and putting both names, Underground Printing and Moe Sport Shop, on the awning out front.
Gregg explains the decision this way: “Say you come into town once a year for a game, typically you come around to the State Street area to do a little bit of shopping, but you only come around to South U if you have a kid in school. On Main Street you have a higher concentration of what I call normal Ann Arbor residents, who don’t want to fight student traffic, but they still want to come downtown for dinner and to shop. We really felt there was room to get a browsable fun retail store down there, so you can go out, have some drinks, eat, but you also wander around and you can come by our store.”
At 3,000 square feet, the Main Street location is about the size of Moe’s and marginally smaller than the South U store. Gregg says they used both names to reflect the stock the store carries: “It offers some of the boutique, short-run fashion pieces we carry at Underground Printing but also offers the classic, official sideline wear of Moe’s.” Think Champion hoodies and anything with the word Adidas on it.
Gregg and Narayan founded Underground Printing, originally a silkscreen T-shirt business, in their West Quad dorm room in 2001. Today they own fourteen stores in eight states, and their product line now includes all kinds of printed apparel and accessories. But retail sales are the least of their business. “Our bread and butter from day one has always been custom printing. We’re the sixteenth largest screen printer by volume in the country,” Gregg says. Their local client base alone is huge. “We probably print for 90 percent of the businesses, nonprofits, bars, restaurants, you name it,” he says–including their new Main Street neighbor, Conor O’Neill’s. “We do everything from the fleece for the bouncers standing outside to the T-shirts for the Shamrock 5k Run at St. Patrick’s Day,” Gregg says. “We even do the coasters.”
Underground Printing/Moe Sport Shop, 329 South Main, 274-6124. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun
9 a.m.-9 p.m. undergroundshirts.com
Howard Weisskopf started out in 1950s Minneapolis scouring secondhand stores for used clothes he could recycle. He’d sort them by color and fabric, then ship them to Italy, where manufacturers would turn them into bolts of cloth they could use to make new clothes. Two decades later, at the tail end of the Vietnam war, Weisskopf noticed that college kids were willing to pay good money to dress in the same used clothes he’d been shipping overseas, so he went from rag picker to rag stocker.
He opened the first Ragstock store in Minneapolis in 1971. Four decades later, Ragstock has fifteen retail locations in the Midwest, including the one that opened in mid-October in the old Kaplan Testing space on East Liberty.
You can still get a pair of stylishly ragged secondhand jeans at Ragstock, but these days 75 percent of their sales come from bargain-priced new clothing and accessories. Ragstock still picks them up on the cheap–a lot of their stock is close-outs and irregulars of the kind you’d find at an outlet mall. The current owner of the company, Mike Finn (who is also Weisskopf’s son-in-law), describes it as “new trendy clothing.” Their bestselling items include T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, and jeans. Finn says the used clothing is popular with people who want to “put together a hip look that’s all their own.” Like any college town, Ann Arbor is crawling with used and new-but-budget-priced clothing stores, but the Ragstock vibe is more Old Navy than anything else.
The soul of the business is still recycling, and to some extent Ragstock still thinks in terms of sorting material–in one part of their website, they break down prices according to fabric as opposed to items of clothing: used denim starts at $9, new denim at $20. Used flannel starts at $6, new flannel at $10. As the site proclaims, Ragstock’s been recycling for fifty years, and buying and reselling overstocks, closeouts, and irregulars is a kind of recycling, too.
Ragstock, 337 E. Liberty, 997-0932. Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ragstock.com
If you’re opening a business selling environmentally friendly cleaning products, building materials, and restaurant supplies, calling it Go Green would make all kinds of sense. Unless you live in Ann Arbor, where the phrase Go Blue trumps it. It didn’t take long for Daniel Stephens to realize his mistake. “It was Go Green about for two weeks, and then everyone complained,” he said. “So we immediately changed it to BGreen.” Stephens, who co-owns BGreen with his wife, Delphine, opened the business two years ago on South Industrial with plans to sell to customers both retail and wholesale. The wholesale side of the business took off fast, but the retail side was slower to catch on. In fact, it was pretty much a nonstarter.
“In our old location we had no retail [business] at all,” Stephens says. A big part of the problem was visibility. The city of Ann Arbor wouldn’t let him put out a sign, so he had to make do with a sandwich board–which, he notes ruefully, “was stolen in forty-eight hours.” Moving the business to the old Hollywood Video space on Packard in early October made a dramatic difference. In the first week, he says, “we’ve had more walk-in traffic than we had in two years at the old location.” That foot traffic hasn’t necessarily translated into sales, but he doesn’t really expect it to. “Our retail showroom is mostly focused on people who are remodeling.” It’s a destination store for area contractors and do-it-yourselfers looking for environmentally friendly building materials and products like insulation, flooring, paint, sealers, stains, finishes, and dual-flush toilets.
“One of our focuses is going off the grid,” says Stephens. “Our number one product on the retail side is the Rais woodstove–it’s a fantastic stove, made in Denmark.” They also carry backup generators and ethanol distillers to fuel them, as well as small solar- and wind-powered generators–“our awning’s going to be made out of solar panels,” Stephens says, “and our sign’s going to be a wind turbine.”
The wholesale side of BGreen’s business centers on biodegradable paper products made from bagasse, a sugar cane by-product also known as polylactic acid, or PLA. “When you extract the sugar from the sugarcane, the fiber … that’s left over is called bagasse, and that’s ground into a paper-like material,” Stephens explains. The products you can make with it depend on how thick you layer it. “A few layers would be toilet paper. A few more layers would be dinner napkins. And the more layers you put down, the thicker it becomes, and the clamshells are like cardboard.” If Stephens had his druthers, he wouldn’t carry any wood pulp products at all, but he had to make a couple of exceptions for hot cups and soup cups because bagasse can’t be formed to make lids. “So we use paper products for that, and we line [the cup material] with polylactic acid so it degrades.”
BGreen’s biggest local customer is the U-M hospital cafeteria service–Stephens says they run through 2,000 clamshell containers a day. He also sells the biodegradables nationally, and one of his biggest clients is the city of Los Angeles, which started a pilot Meals on Wheels program and contracted BGreen to supply their bowls, plates, clamshells, and cutlery.
BGreen, 2111 Packard, 214-3000. Mon.-Thurs. 9 p.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sun. bgreentoday.com
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