The other day a man walked up to the counter at Northern Sun merchandising at 2916 E. Lake St. and, in a tone normally reserved for condom requests or drug deals, asked, “Do you have any of those bumper stickers from your catalog that say ‘Read a (expletive) book’?”
The woman behind the counter never flinched. She disappeared into a back room to fetch the desired booty; the man apologized to a couple kids who may have been shocked by his mid-afternoon F-bomb, and the rest of the customers went back to browsing the various trinkets and baubles that sport missives such as, “Make Out Not War,” “Jon Stewart For President ’08,” “January 20, 2009: End of an Error,” and “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything. — Joseph Stalin.”
“Our two biggest items right now are Obama lawn signs and anything that says, ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,’” says Dara Grimmer, who has worked at Northern Sun for the past year. “The most interesting thing is that right now we’re getting people from the suburbs driving in. They come from Anoka, Andover, Lakeville, all over. They want everything, and these are people who never come into the inner city. It’s exciting to start a dialogue within different communities.”
“Historically, our customers are a varied group,” says shop owner Scott Kramer. “Anarchists, Greens, Democrats, Libertarians, progressives, and apolitical people, even. But at the moment, there’s a very strong feeling across a very wide spectrum that the Republicans have to be stopped.”
To be sure, in these heady political times where so many survivors of the last eight years are eager to make a stand, change the world, and be part of history (or at least wear a T-shirt, put up a lawn sign, and slap on a bumper sticker), Northern Sun has become the one-stop mom-and-pop outlet for all your free-thinking needs. And, as the pendulum swings dramatically from dumb and dumber to smarter and saner, the 30-year-old lefty-liberal outpost stands as one of the few places in town whose business can be described as brisk.
“The only time we’ve been busier was in 2003, with the onset of the Iraq war,” says Kramer. “We were in the middle of what I call the lawn sign wars. Between us and WAMM (Women Against Military Madness) we put out 20,000 ‘Say No To War With Iraq’ lawn signs. Everybody from the Basilica of St. Mary to Vets For Peace were coming to us. It felt really good.”
These days, the local and national Obama For President headquarters have run out of merchandise, which has been a boon for Northern Sun’s online catalog (northernsun.com) and its self-produced Obama swag. As a result, the foot traffic into the Lake Street storefront is flying, but Kramer realizes the jig is bound to be up in a couple weeks.
“The irony for us is that when Obama wins, we’ll probably flat-line as a business,” says Kramer, who also puts in time as co-chair of the Longfellow Business Association. “That’s what happened during the Clinton years. We’re not going to attack him, particularly, because the right wing will be doing that plenty. So that leaves us in a position on a left flank where we’ll criticize but not attack.
“It’ll be tricky. We’ll still be here, but in terms of actual business, having George Bush for eight years was a gimme. It was shooting fish in a barrel. The guy’s made it so easy for cartoonists and businesses like us.”
For customers, Northern Sun has been something of an oasis. Folks come in to browse the Celtic and pagan offerings, the pro-choice pamphlets, the Buddhist books, the Obama action figures, the anti-Bush magnets, and the vast array of T-shirts (“Give A Hoot Don’t Pollute,” “I Do Not Intend To Tiptoe Through Life Only To Arrive Safely At Death,” “Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper,” “I Think, Therefore I’m Dangerous,” etc., etc., etc.), and to rub elbows with other like- and unlike-minded free spirits.
“Most of the time it’s fun,” says Grimmer. “People feel free to speak their mind, and speak freely. Every once in a while I become a therapist to people who are really scared about the election. Most people are very optimistic, and I’m very optimistic, so I like sharing that. But some people are so scared. I just become a therapist, nod my head, listen, and go, ‘What would you do?’ or ‘What do you think about that?’ Sometimes people just need to talk it out.
“People are thrilled to find us, and they’re really happy to find things that reflect their point of view,” concludes Kramer. “Until we’re put out of business and this all becomes mainstream, and some big corporation takes over what we’re doing, we’ll still be able to provide that voice of sanity and reason in a world of speculators and greedy bastards.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.