Story by Jesse Wright
Photo by Luke Nankivell
The Des Moines shop RAYGUN is known to many locals residents as a small business that sells T-shirts with humorous messages on them, along with mugs, posters and books such as “The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth” and “Overheard in the Store.”
Owner Mike Draper describes the store as “a local Urban Outfitters, where 95 percent of the stuff that leaves the store is made in sweatshop-free America,” Draper said.
Sales associate Lucy Shay says it is “a ‘lifestyle store’ that sells clothing, houseware and gifts for the youthful minded.” And though it is known as a staple of Des Moines, RAYGUN will soon be known to those outside the Hawkeye State.
RAYGUN is opening another store in Kansas City, Mo.
Though another store was opened in Iowa City in 2010, the new store will mark RAYGUN’s first location outside of Iowa. “I’ve always wanted RAYGUN to keep growing, the last few years it was just a matter of how. After comparing Des Moines and Iowa City over the last 3 years, we really like the advantages that a mid-to-decent size city can provide. We opened in Iowa City to have something different from Des Moines to compare to, and we like the Des Moines-model city more than the college town.”
Draper said the genesis for the store started during his college days. He had studied history at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and during his senior year he was rejected for a masters fellowship.
“After that,” said Draper, “I had no post-graduate plans. A friend of mine suggested that we start selling t-shirts on campus. We started during the spring of my senior year, and I just kept traveling around, selling shirts, before moving back to Des Moines in 2005 to open the store. So I basically fell into it by accident but have enjoyed it over the last few years.”
Though the store sells many items, it is most known for its T-shirts decorated with humorous sayings. Some such sayings include, “Iowa: 75 percent Vowels 100 percent Awesome,” “You’ve Cat to be Kitten Meow” and “Don’t Go Bacon My Heart.”
Sales associate Suzanne Corum-Rich said that the humor is meant to give the store a more hospitable, Midwestern feeling.
“We have learned that you can’t take yourselves too seriously, so we injected comedy into many of the items we sell,” Corum-Rich said.
Yet, the humor espoused on certain T-shirts may not appeal to everyone.
While not overly offensive, messages such as “I Listened to NPR Before it was Cool” and “Make Awkward Sexual Advances Not War” may alienate some people.
Draper said that there is a liberal slant to the store, but that he is not worried about potentially turning away sensitive customers.
I like companies that have an edge to them, and an affiliation,” he said.
“Even a ‘non-political’ company like Walmart turns away potential customers because of the people the store attracts. No matter what you do, someone isn’t going to like you for one reason or another. RAYGUN is a fairly true reflection of my personality, humor and belief structure, and I think that is what gives it a voice that people can see, Draper said.
Draper has also not ruled out expanding RAYGUN into other states.
“We’ll probably keep our footprint to just the 12 Midwestern states,” Draper said. “That’s our design/core emphasis, and it kind of establishes an exclusivity that is useful.”