- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 14, 2015

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Before the nation’s collegiate apparel industry turned into a $4.6 billion profit machine, any non-athlete who wanted to wear a University of Michigan shirt probably had to steal one from the athletic department.

That changed in 1934 when George Moe started to add University of Michigan clothing to his lineup of sporting goods and uniforms at his stores in Ann Arbor.

That story, told for generations, represents the significance and influence of a retail milestone: The 100th anniversary this year of Moe Sports Shop.

It’s an anniversary event that won’t involve a public party. Instead, say the store’s owners since 2010, it’s a chance to acknowledge the milestones of the store. Like how they believe it’s the nation’s birthplace for collegiate apparel.

“That happened at Michigan,” co-owner Rishi Narayan told The Ann Arbor News (https://bit.ly/1jenLTo ). “I think that story sets the tone for how important this little shop ended up being.”

At the same time, the co-owners said, they hope customers will value how little has changed at the place where generations of U-M athletes, students and alumni have shopped for sporting goods.

“It’s a slice of history,” Narayan said. “Michigan athletics is intertwined with Ann Arbor and sports history in general.”

As proof, he points to U-M Coach Jim Harbaugh’s press conference when he discussed his return to Ann Arbor. Among his memories from living here, he said, was shopping at Moe.

That, co-owner Ryan Gregg said, showed how customers form a relationship with the store. And the pair continues to find those local connections as they research details of the store’s history for its centennial.

“It’s one of the things in the campus community that’s the same: Location, storefront, address,” he said. “I don’t think there are any other stores that really claim that.”

Gregg and Narayan said they bought the store in 2010 knowing that they’d feel a responsibility to maintain the sense of history at Moe’s.

“You can always make something new,” Gregg told The Ann Arbor News at the time. “But some things you’ll never be able to recreate, so you’d better hold onto them.”

That’s what Gregg and Narayan are still doing at Moe Sports Shop, even as they continue to build their other business, Underground Printing, based in Ann Arbor. With that endeavor they operate a local 55,000-square foot production facility and have 20 stores in 12 states focusing on collegiate apparel, accessories and custom-print orders.

Yet they also can be found working weekends at Moe’s.

The pair bought the store from Bud Van De Wege Jr., who pursued a different career as his father - the late Bud Sr. - decided to finally retire.

Since that time, Gregg and Narayan have operated the store across from the University of Michigan Diag in ways that might barely seem different to the store’s founder.

Clothing is still stocked in the custom cabinetry. There’s still one dressing room. The haberdashery-style three-way mirror still lets buyers check all angles. Some elements still show how sports equipment was displayed in the store, before items like tennis rackets and golf clubs left the product mix.

The sign out front also hasn’t changed in years; it still bears the Van De Wege name, added after Bud Sr. bought it from Harold Trick, who acquired it from Moe’s widow, Genevieve, after her husband died in the store.

Meanwhile, some changes to the store, like carrying more inventory and focusing on kids apparel, may not be as obvious. More visible to visitors are the newspaper clippings, Polaroid photos of U-M athletes and old photos that line the windows and walls. And product lines speak to today’s family relationships with U-M legends: Ufer, Schembechler, Woodson.

“Moe’s is strictly a Michigan fan shop,” Narayan said. “It’s all about Michigan. All about Michigan apparel. That is not something we think about changing.”

Narayan and Gregg compiled some of Moe’s history for the 100th anniversary. Some connections to history:

- Striped referee shirts - ubiquitous in sports - were an innovation of Moe, made at the request of football official Lloyd Olds in 1920.

- Moe was among the first self-service retailers, where shoppers could remove items from the shelves, which were a new addition in 1927 after a fire destroyed the original building.

- Moe, who left the U-M athletic department to start his store, designed the store to appeal to athletes, and set it up to convey quality. Football uniforms for many years were custom-made by Ann Arbor seamstresses. Moe had a role in choosing the pattern when U-M switched to ready-to-wear uniforms.

The irony of the desire to keep the storefront’s essence of its early days isn’t lost on Narayan and Gregg, who are expanding their retail and manufacturing enterprises in an era when online sales put tremendous pressures on bricks-and-mortar store operators. Those operators include another Ann Arbor-based retailer, The M Den, which contracts with U-M as the Athletic Department’s official retailer; but also the many other outlets - from department stores to groceries - that now carry licensed apparel.

What Narayan and Gregg doing at Moe’s defines an aspect of their business philosophy.

“Why we’re enamored with and chose to continue Moe’s legacy is our belief in stores and how important it is,” Narayan said. “It’s important to have a physical location for the customer experience and buying experience.

“You have to have physical stories to make you great,” he said, explaining that he and Gregg take turns working there to interact with customers and watch them react to their products.

“Here, you’ve had that connection for 100 years,” he said. “That’s a 1 in a million brand that’s been built and why we take it so seriously.”


Information from: The Ann Arbor News, https://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor

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