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Obama gear a hot sell, local businesses say

on October 17, 2008


It began as a political experiment, of sorts.

A few months before the Democratic primary, the owners of Ruby’s Garden in Temescal set up a display of children’s t-shirts on the doors in front of the store. Half the shirts endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, the other half Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The Obama tees were snapped up faster than pundits could spin the Iowa results. And Hillary?

“Those sat around and sat around,” said Mae Chan Frey, co-owner of the kidswear and flower shop. “We still have some left. They are on the discount rack.”

Now the store reserves its prime spot on the doors for “O baa ma” shirts – the lettering matched with a picture of a Cheerio-O, a sheep and a mother.

Mae Chan Frey arranges "O baa maa" outfits at Ruby's Garden in Temescal

Mae Chan Frey arranges "O baa ma" clothing at Ruby's Garden

The store is one of several North Oakland businesses that are paying close attention to this year’s presidential election, selling political gear that ranges from action figures (McCain is surprisingly nimble) to refrigerator magnets that can be arranged to mix-and-match Obama’s wardrobe (slogan: “A change of clothes we can believe in”).

Political wares are being peddled all over the country, with thousands more available online on sites like eBay, which features more than 11,000 such products. But Northern California, and the Bay Area in particular, is a particularly hot market for Obama gear, according to the maker of the Obama and McCain action figures.

Jason Feinberg of New York-based Jailbreak Toys started sculpting Obama action figures in January, months before the Illinois Senator won the Democratic nod. There was something “superhero-like” about Obama that inspired Feinberg, whose other actions figures include icons such as Che Guevara, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.

“I knew Obama had it. He’s got that something special,” Feinberg said. “He’s cool, he’s young, he’s fit.” Nationwide, 70,000 of the Obama and McCain action figures have sold, with Obama leading by a wide margin of 64 to 36. Feinberg donates $1 from every action figure to the Obama campaign. He doesn’t promote the McCain figures, but made them for retail customers that wanted to be fair.

Obama action figures at Piedmont Stationers

Obama action figures at Piedmont Stationers

In Oakland, even drinks and food are part of the fray. The Conga Lounge on College Avenue, which hosts debate-watching parties and Obama campaign events, boasts an “Obama-Mama” pineapple-flavored cocktail on its menu. And Cosmic Chocolates on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal makes a special line of Obama chocolates, either in espresso cognac or raspberry ganache flavor.

Last week, Paws on Piedmont pet store began selling its first ever “human product”: a Paws for Obama t-shirt.

“They are made for humans, but we’ve had people saying they’d like one for their dog, too,” said Carla Klinker, an employee at the store. “They’ve been selling very well.”

The products are not just about boosting business, although several business owners said the political items have become some of their top sellers. To owners like Frey, it’s about supporting local artists such as the designer of the “O baa ma” shirt –Vonnie Chan, a mother who lives in Berkeley – as much as it is about fostering a community dialogue.

“I know this area is very politically involved,” Frey said. “People here have opinions and want to voice them.”

Unsurprisingly, Obama products are the easiest to find in this largely liberal area. A number of businesses, like Greetings card store on Piedmont Avenue, carry only Obama merchandise. It sells the Obama wardrobe magnets, figurines and plenty of t-shirts, all of which are moving “pretty well,” said Greetings manager Ed Wyche.

But at least one place is trying for neutrality.

When Shelly Lowe, owner of Piedmont Stationers, decided to carry political action figures in her store, she ordered 36 Obama and 12 McCain figurines, figuring Obama would go faster.

The Obamas sold out. This week she restocked the shelves with 60 more, which are selling at a “steady clip,” she said.

Eight of the original McCains remain.

“I wanted to carry McCain for whatever people want do with it after they purchase it,” Lowe said. “We try not to do one-sided stuff.”

Piedmont Stationers owner Shelly Lowe holds an Obama bobblehead

Piedmont Stationers owner Shelly Lowe holds an Obama bobblehead

Sitting in her office on Tuesday, she opened a cardboard package that contained an Obama bobblehead, still wrapped in plastic. It’s a limited edition bobblehead, she said, one of only 2,000 that were made.

Lowe then pulled out a set of stickers featuring Obama in hues of red, white and blue – an image, designed by a Los Angeles street artist, that has become ubiquitous on bumper stickers and posters across the country,

Lowe said she is considering holding an in-store auction for the sole bobblehead with the proceeds going to the Obama campaign, although she hasn’t made up her mind.

Then there’s also the question of how much to charge for the stickers, items without obvious pricepoints as the ballpoint pens or greeting cards that fill her shelves. Or she may just end up keeping the Obama gear for herself.

“The collector in me wants to hang on to them,” Lowe said.||||||||||||||


  1. Eugene Chan on October 24, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for your story. Vonnie and I are Chicks and Frogs and we handmake the “O BAAA MA” shirts and hats that you graciously wrote about it in the article.

    Beyond creating a “market demand”, buying (and designing) Obama inspired items allows us to publicly express the values that about what an Obama presidency would mean to us and to our two kids.

    We want a President and a leader who carries himself the way Senator Obama does. I can’t imagine a better role model for my kids.

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