The bold, capital letters on the sign in the window of Iowa City’s Raygun are familiar, but the message, like the location across from the Ped Mall, is new: “I assure you we’re open.”
Raygun, purveyor of fine T-shirts, bumper stickers and other items on which clever messages can be printed, took over the space formerly occupied by Cold Stone Creamery at the corner of Washington and Dubuque streets at the end of July. Raygun has had a store in Iowa City since 2010, but many people walked past its previous location without ever realizing the store was there.
“Every single week someone would stop in, and say, ‘Oh, I walked by here all the time, and I had no idea you guys had a store,’” Joseph Heuermann, manager of the Iowa City Raygun, said regarding the old location next the Wells Fargo Bank, at the Clinton Street edge of the Ped Mall. “To get to us in that building, you had to go through two sets of double doors, and then up some stairs.”
“The biggest difference in the new location is the direct store access,” Heuermann said. “I think not having direct access really hurt walk-in traffic previously, and now we’re right on the corner. You can’t miss us.”
The new location opened on July 27, the day RAGBRAI hit town.
“It was crazy,” Heuermann said. “Packed all day.”
But not everyone was looking for T-shirts.
“Lots of koozie purchases,” Heuermann recalled with a small laugh. “Thanks to the open container area for RAGBRAI.”
Raygun was founded under the name Smash in 2005 in Des Moines by Van Meter native Mike Draper. He’d started printing and selling T-shirts the previous year as a senior at the University of Pennsylvania (or “Not Penn State” as his first tees said). For the first two years of Smash’s existence, Draper worked alone because he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.
As Draper’s work got greater attention for its creativity, the business continued to grow. In 2009, Smash was renamed Raygun (“The Greatest Store in the Universe”). The next year it expanded into Iowa City. Stores in Kansas City and Cedar Rapids followed.
In addition to its merchandise, Raygun has become known for its commitment to progressive social and political causes. For example, the Cedar Rapids store hosted a fundraiser for the Iowa Abortion Access Fund in May, and the following month it volunteered to host a meet-and-greet for the Road to Change (the summer tour promoting gun control led by student survivors of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting) after bad weather required a last minute change of venue.
One of Raygun’s signature tees attracted national attention when the live-feed camera of the Iowa House of Representatives was repositioned so viewers couldn’t see what Rep. Amy Nielsen was wearing during a debate on the so-called “fetal heartbeat bill,” which contained the most severe restrictions on abortion passed by any state legislature. The North Liberty Democrat’s Raygun shirt read: “The GOP: Creating government small enough to fit inside your vagina.”
— Amy Nielsen (@RepAmyNielsen) May 2, 2018
Raygun backs up its progressive slogans with its money. The company buys the shirts for its printing operation from a fair trade certified factory, and its printing for paper products is done by a union shop in Des Moines.
Raygun’s willingness to plainly state its values led to one of the stranger op-ed pieces to recently appear in the Des Moines Register. In “Are conservatives welcome at the Raygun store?” published in April, a legislative aide to a conservative state senator from Sioux City spent almost 500 words complaining that Raygun’s merchandise made him uncomfortable and was spoiling his experience of Des Moines, a city he had only recently moved to after years of worshiping it “from afar.” (“Growing up in the Cedar Valley, I came to love practically everything I learned about the city, despite showing up in town only occasionally… The city is a concentrated reflection of the best Iowa has to offer.”) The article does not include a quote from a Raygun representative.
“Everybody is welcome in the store,” Draper told the Register, when it got around to asking him the question in the op-ed’s title. “But for best effect, you should probably have a sense of humor when you walk around the store.”
The new Iowa City store has 600 more square feet of space in which to walk around, compared to the previous location. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.