Drake’s, the Pretzel Bell, Jacobson’s, Middle Earth — all are gone, but one store that has stood the test of time in Ann Arbor for a century now is Moe Sport Shops. Still located in its original location at 711 North University, the store continues to hold a special place in the hearts of town residents, the University community, and alumni, including Jim Harbaugh. U-M’s head football coach reminisced about the store during the press conference last December announcing his hiring.
“I remember walking into Moe Sport Shops and looking at everything with big, wide eyes,” Harbaugh said of his years growing up in Ann Arbor, when his father was a U-M assistant football coach. “I would cut lawns, shovel snow, and rake leaves so that I could go to Moe Sport Shops to get a pair of basketball shoes or get something with the Block M on it.”
Moe’s storied history has now been reverentially documented on a commemorative website (www.100years.moe) by the store’s two current owners, Rishi Narayan, ’03, MSE’05, and Ryan Gregg, x’01. Visitors to the site can peruse post-war advertisements promoting “Bargain Days,” when ladies’ saddle shoes cost just $3 and adult “Play Clothes” were reduced by one-third. A click on the historical timeline reveals a devastating fire nearly destroyed the current shop in 1927 and the fun fact that George J. Moe, the original owner, installed a sidewalk “oiling station” in the 1930s to service the many students roller skating to class.
“We always knew we wanted to carry on the Moe’s tradition, as we have such a healthy respect for the past,” said Narayan, remembering the first conversation they had with Bud VanDeWege Jr., ’80, who sold the store to them in 2010. “Buddy Jr.,” a former women’s basketball head coach (who led the team to 93 wins during his eight-season career) took over the store in 1992 from his late father, Bud VanDeWege Sr., who was involved with Moe’s for 46 years.
Narayan and Gregg, who first met in the sixth grade and then attended U-M’s engineering school together, became business partners in 2001 when they started screen-printing designs on T-shirts for student groups. Now called Underground Printing, the business has grown into a nationwide apparel company that provides high-quality custom printing, decoration, and embroidery on everything from hoodies and hats to Frisbees and magnets. Its clients include national retailers, Fortune 500 companies, and the Big Ten (though they purposely have chosen not to sell to Ohio State).
But what interested the current owners most about buying Moe’s was “carrying on the store’s history of innovation,” said Narayan. That innovation includes being the birthplace of collegiate apparel. In 1934, a salesman from Champion Sportswear walked into the shop and started talking to George Moe, an Ann Arbor native and U-M alumnus who had previously worked in athletics both at U-M and in the community. Moe listened carefully as the salesman complained that the only place to get a T-shirt with “Michigan” printed on it was to steal one from the athletic department.
Soon after, the two men went on to make the very first UM-imprinted T-shirts. Successful sales of the Michigan gear led Champion to make the same proposal to the other Big Ten schools and, in turn, began a whole new industry in collegiate apparel.
Sadly, Moe died in 1939 at the age of 52. But his wife, Genevieve, kept the shop alive before selling it in 1941 to Harold Trick, who had already worked at Moe for 11 years. More than 30 years later, he sold the shop to the VanDeWege family and the rest is now, somewhat modern, history.
To learn more about Moe’s legacy, including how the black-and-white referee uniforms worn on fields today were created at Moe Sport Shops, check out the centennial website, where in return for sharing a personal story about shopping or working at Moe’s, the owners are giving out 20 percent off discount codes and entering each contributor to win a $500 gift card.