Have you ever seen anyone wearing a Hartford T-shirt?
July 28, 2009
"I've never seen any Hartford souvenirs in this area," an associate at the Hallmark Gold Crown store in the West Farms Mall told me. "Go to Mystic, or the shore. That's where all the places of interest are."
That stings. Isn't Connecticut's capital city a "place of interest"? There are things to do and see here: art museums, festivals, parades, restaurants. Sure, you can get University of Hartford or Trinity or UConn apparel, but what about just plain-old I-heart-Hartford T-shirts?
Another Hallmark store, in Wethersfield, didn't have any, either.
"No, no Hartford," a clerk told me. "But we do have Newington, Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Cromwell, Glastonbury. They come in three different colors, and they're really nice material." Cromwell?
Poor Hartford. We have such low self-esteem. Why don't we want to "represent"? Why don't people have hats and sweatshirts and jewelry to boost the city's image? Hartford's been having a hard time marketing itself for a while, with lots of start-up campaigns (billboards, Rising Stars) that never quite seemed to take.
But it seems kind of simple ... at the very least, shouldn't we be able to find somewhere in Hartford to buy a Hartford T-shirt?
Maybe the airport.
"No, the audience that comes to the airport isn't that specific, like to want one town," said Debbie Donahue, general manager of the Paradies Shops at Bradley International Airport. "If you were going through the airport and traveling to a lot of states, Connecticut's capital city isn't the draw for a T-shirt. People are more into colleges. We sell UConn, Yale, and more generic things like 'Connecticut,' or 'New England.'"
Calling various stores and shops in Hartford will get you similar responses. And, by the way, there don't seem to be many gift shops in this city, which, considering there aren't any shirts to fill them, makes sense.
But that might be changing! Jessica Vidal, who's the gift shop store director at the new, just-opened Connecticut Science Center, told me Hartford pride is important to the Center.
"It was really important to us to make sure we have souvenirs and T-shirts and hats, since this is our capital," she said.
The shirts were pretty simple. They said "Hartford, 1636." (There was a dispute about the year Hartford was actually founded. "It depends on which historian you talk to," Vidal said. The shop sent back a load of T-shirts that, it was decided, erroneously declared 1637 as the year Hartford was "born." But, like Vidal said, it depends on who you ask.) However, these all sold out and one of the Science Center's publicity guys tells me the 1636 shirts won't be reordered, but other designs are "in the works."
The shop also sells Hartford spoons, Hartford bells, Hartford thimbles, that sort of thing. Interestingly, knick-knacky things are easier to find around here. The Hallmark shop in Wethersfield also sells Hartford mugs and trinkets. Why would Hartford refrigerator magnets be easier to come by than Hartford T-shirts? Is it because they serve more of a practical purpose, and don't become part of your identity in the same way a shirt or a hat does? One doesn't invest in a mug the way one might invest in clothing. Trinkets are half-assed commitments. And you don't bring your refrigerator magnets with you to the mall.
Chase Garrett stood over his trunk, which was neatly full of sneakers, T-shirts, baby bibs and onesies. The T-shirts say "I-84," "I ? CT" and "Welcome to Heartbeat," with "860" centered over a big heart, surrounded by street signs that say "Burton St.," "Maple Ave.," "Albany Ave.," "Zion St.," "Wethersfield Ave.," and a bunch of other familiar Hartford street names. Garrett has several of these shirts in different colors with different street signs, and in the 15 minutes or so we hung out, we were steadily interrupted by people curious and excited about his Hartford gear. Garrett's been doing this for 10 years.
"I was the general manager over at Wings Over Newington, but they fired me," he said before turning to let a lady holding the "860"-fabric-stitched sneakers know that they'd cost her $80. Fifty bucks if she brought him her own sneakers to stitch the design to. (T-shirts are $10.)
"I was getting orders [for my shirts and sneakers] over the phone," he said. "I was [at Wings Over Newington] for three years. But they let me go because of that."
After leaving Wings, Garrett went full-time out on the street, hawking his stuff at gas stations and on street corners from before dawn to after dusk. I found him at Mishy and David's, a clothing shop on Franklin Avenue, where you can buy his shirts and shoes and things. Garrett makes all his merchandise at home, and, until last week, had a sometime spot in TruBooks on Main Street. Now he's in the process of relocating to K's Fashion on Franklin and Bond, where he can work in the store, rather than at his house.
"I have a list of retailers," Garrett said. "I wake up at like 5 in the morning and go to gas stations on Franklin Avenue, Albany Avenue. Sometimes I go to New Britain. There are a few other stores I'm working with to try to get my things in, but selling them out of my trunk is the most efficient way to do business. I'm in the streets with the people. It's one on one."
Garrett is a sweetheart. He's 26, he wears glasses and he speaks softly. When I met him he wore one of the shirts he sells: white tee, with a big red heart and "Heartbeat" and "860" heat-pressed onto its center. He's confident, but he's not cocky, nor is he pushy. He doesn't need to be. Garrett said his designs sell very well, and putting street names on his shirts automatically drives his sales through the roof of his car's trunk.
"Someone'll be like, 'Whoa, my street's on that shirt.' And they buy it without even thinking," he said.
It took only 10 minutes of hanging around Chase Garrett before a group of young guys walked over to us, further crowding the tiny parking area outside Mishy and David's. One of them had "Charter Oak" tattooed on his arm, above a script-fonted prayer. He had seen Garrett's Charter Oak shirt and, with a kind of urgent excitement, asked Garrett for an XL. Garrett didn't have any in that size.
"He's from Charter Oak," Garrett said. "He'd buy it right now, but it's not his size."
The guy with the tattoo talked to his friend while Garrett rummaged through his backseat.
"This is where I'm from," he was saying to his friend. (He declined to comment or be identified for this story.)
"You got I-95?" one of the guys asked.
"No 95!" his friend reproached him. "No I-95! We're I-84! What's the matter with you?"
Garrett was saying to the man with the tattoo that he could go and get him an XL.
"Like I said, I'll go home and I'll go make it. I'll go make it real fast," he said.
The man looked something shy of devastated, asking again, "You don't got a XL?"
"I can go and make it. I'll go make it," Garrett insisted.
"OK," the man said. "I'll wait." And Garrett packed it in, shut his trunk and got in his car.
Stacy Stachow, the museum shop manager at the Wadsworth Atheneum, said, "I have nothing for Hartford T-shirts. It's ridiculous."
Stachow said people sometimes come in looking for Hartford stuff, but "in reality," Stachow said, "we don't really have any tourists. But I think people would like to have 'Hartford, Connecticut,' written on things, and I've started producing more products with 'Hartford' on them."
Saying she wants to find someone who can make her a handful of shirts, "like 12," she said, Stachow said she'd try selling them. However, "I just don't think I could sell 144," she said.
This was similar to what Debbie Donahue at the airport had told me, that there just wasn't a big enough tourist base to justify making a lot of Hartford merchandise. Donahue said the Bradley gift shops used to sell Hartford stuff, but stopped because the merchandise wasn't very popular.
But it's been a different experience at the Science Center.
"When people buy these shirts, they tell us [the Science Center] they've never owned a shirt that said Hartford on it," Jessica Vidal said.
It's a complicated little problem. People from outside the city don't seem to have much interest in wearing Hartford apparel, while people in the city have a lot of interest. But gift shops and souvenirs are usually stocked for out-of-towners, and so the nonexistence of hometown gift shops — "For Hartford, From Hartford" — can make Connecticut's capital seem inhabited by a prideless bunch of UConn-sweatshirt-wearing Hartfordites pining for the Whalers. How to fix it? The best way might be to track Chase Garrett down. Or go to the Science Center. The new in-the-works CSC shirts are designed "with the Hartford skyline (including the Science Center)," Edward Main, a publicity dude there, wrote in an e-mail. "We hope to have these within the next few weeks."
Sarah Barr, director of communications for Mayor Eddie Perez, said there wasn't any city-hall-generated Hartford merchandise, but that's not to say they're not interested.
"There is no Hartford merchandise store," she said. "Would I love to see one? Yes. It would be great to promote the city."
Barr also recommended I get in touch with Hartford's party activists the Hartford Party Starters Union, who make T-shirts as well, and pass out Hartford gear like pins and koozies, all on a similar DIY level to Chase Garrett's one-man operation.
"I've been saying this is what we need," Barr said. "But obviously one individual entity can't do it alone."
That doesn't mean Garrett and the Science Center are going to stop trying. I talked to Garrett a couple of days after we met in the Mishy and David's parking lot. I asked if the Charter Oak guy got his T-shirt.
"No, he wasn't there when I got back," he said. "But it's all right. I'm gonna keep going back. He'll probably be there again."
Chase Garrett makes customized Hartford-centric shirts, and they are awesome. Find Chase Garrett. He's out there on the streets. Though he's moving to K's on Franklin Avenue, he'll also be driving around the city and selling shoes and shirts out of the back of his car. His Web site isn't up yet, but keep checking for it. It's chasedreamz.com.
Go to the Connecticut Science Center. The gift shop's open Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for the summer. (Closed on Mondays from September to May.) Go to ctsciencecenter.org for information about the new Center and its gift shop.
Of course, the Hartford Party Starters Union. Their T-shirts have punk-rock renderings of "Mack" Twain, that promote both the parties and the city. They do the Blogspot thing, so for party and T-shirt information, go to hartfordpartystartersunion.blogspot.com