CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids soon will discover how far its sense of humor stretches as a new satirical T-shirt shop opens Friday.
Cedar Rapids is ripe for ribbing. We have the mountain of garbage dubbed Mount Trashmore, lots of smells, “Crunchberry day,” confusing quadrants, infamous speed cameras, seemingly endless train backups and a temperamental river.
“You start with the low hanging Crunchberries,” said Mike Draper, owner of Raygun, a T-shirt shop known for punchy observations on local topics. “There’s a wealth of material here.”
The point is not making fun, but rather laughing at a community’s absurdities and letting the outside world in on the joke, Draper said. Cedar Rapids is the canvass for the newest Raygun location, which opens at Third Street and 11th Avenue SE. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Local leaders have touted the opening of Raygun, which started in Des Moines in 2005, as a trendy addition to a city trying to beef up its credentials with millennials. The shop sits in the heart of the NewBo District, an up-and-coming entertainment area popular among 20-somethings seeking bars, coffee, shopping and food.
Raygun with its offbeat slogans that get viral notoriety beyond the borders will fit right in, they say.
But will Cedar Rapidians warm to the jokes?
“Iowans are very conservative,” said Dan Claflin, 68, who has lived in Cedar Rapids more than 60 years and retired from Rockwell Collins. “Do we make fun of ourselves? Yes, but rarely.”
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Several residents, including Claflin and Suzi Kamerling, who works downtown for GoDaddy, got a sneak peek at the merchandise last week and thought the material will go over well.
Some of the content, which also adorns pint glasses, stickers, and postcards, is subtle.
“Cedar Rapids: Breathe It In” or “Cedar Rapids: Wake Up and Smell the Crunchberries.” Others are a little edgier: “Cedar Rapids: More Than Just Raw Sex Appeal” or “Sex, Drugs and Rockwell Collins.”
Some touch on more sensitive subjects: “Cedar Rapids: Above Water and Loving It,” a reference to the 2008 flood that claimed homes and businesses.
“It kind of makes you feel like you are part of the joke, like it is an inside joke between you and everyone wearing the T-shirt,” Kamerling said.
She appreciates the “clever” portrayal of Cedar Rapids and anticipates purchasing merchandise as gifts for out-of-state friends and family.
Some in official capacities reacted positively to the material as well, including Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Aaron McCreight, president of the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.
“Obviously they’ve done a little history on Cedar Rapids,” Corbett said. “I am looking forward to having them in our community and I’m glad they will be part of NewBo.”
McCreight said his organization has been discussing working with Raygun on marketing campaigns.
This type of humor can help brand Cedar Rapids as an approachable community, going “a long way in breaking down barriers between outsiders and residents,” he said. “It lets people in.”
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Raygun will have 50 new Cedar Rapids-specific items to release with the opening, said Draper, who works with a small creative team to come up with the designs he describes as PG-13.
Draper acknowledges he hears from those who get offended but he shrugs it off as “a lot of very sensitive people.” He said Iowans tend to keep their guard up, and he sees this type of humor as helping “move the needle” on getting Iowa to not take itself so seriously.
Draper said material gets edgier over time as stores take hold in the communities, but he said it comes from a place of affection.
Draper, now 33, started Raygun after earning a history degree at the University of Pennsylvania and after getting rejected for grad school. A friend suggested he sell T-shirts, which he did on street corners, before returning home to Iowa. He opened a store not far from his hometown of Van Meter in East Village of Des Moines, which was in the early stages of revitalization — not unlike NewBo.
More than the slogans are local, which is an important part of the business philosophy, Draper said. Shirt material is sourced in the United States and is sweatshop free. Screen printing is done in-house. Even the shelving that display goods in the 5,000 square foot, two-story NewBo shop are built by staff.
“I’m happy to be here before everything gets built up in NewBo,” said Thomas Somphanthabansouk, the store manager.
The Cedar Rapids store is in a new brick building, NewBo Station. Nine part-time and full-time employees will staff the store. Companywide, Raygun has grown to 40 employees, Draper said. Locations also have opened in Iowa City and Kansas City, and Draper said he is interested in continuing to expand, perhaps in the Quad Cities area.
“This is a great place to live,” Draper said of Iowa. “This is a great place to create. We didn’t lose the lottery of life. We know where the exits are, but some things are so absurd they should be laughed at.”