When you’re looking for your niche, try taking a walk down memory lane. We all have places and people that defined our youth; the amusement park with the best flume ride around, or the gym teacher who acted more like a drill sergeant. Fond memories can inspire great ideas.
For my mom, it happened on a lazy Sunday stroll down Westminster Street in Providence. I caught her glancing up at a URI building. “Whatcha thinkin’ about?,” I asked. “The tea room…” she murmured distractedly, a look of nostalgia washing over her face.
The sight had triggered a fond memory from 45 years before. The building was once home to The Shepard Company Department Store, the largest department store in New England. It opened in 1880, occupying an entire city block until it went bankrupt almost 95 years later.
Dressed to the nines, my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother would head downtown for an afternoon of shopping. But the best part, my mom recalls, came after the purchases were made and it was time to visit the elegant Shepard’s Tea Room.
On her very best behavior, my then eight-year-old mother would practice her best posture, and speak as formally as her grandmother did at the time - quite different than how we talk today, she explained to me. She would ask, “Grandmother, may I order a slice of chocolate cake?”
Her grandmother, while offering a knowing smile to the waitress would say, “You may, but you’ll never finish it. You are a small girl, and a slice of their chocolate cake is big enough to feed a grown man! Go ahead and try, then.”
The waitress returned moments later with a generous serving of the decadent dessert. Wide-eyed, my mother would grab her fork and get started. As the adults conversed, she slowly and purposefully finished every last morsel.
“I can’t believe you’ve done it! Do you see?,” Grandmother would ask the table full of women next to them. It was the highlight of her day. They’d finish their tea and be on their way home - the women, satisfied with their purchases, and my mother, satisfied with her conquest.
I told her it was a beautiful memory. She described it with such detail that I could taste the cake, and feel her excitement as she took that last bite. Gazing up at the building myself, I read the words “The Shepard Stores.” To me, it was another URI building. But to my mom, it was a precious memory, and a welcomed walk down memory lane.
I wondered how many locals had similar experiences at the department store back when it was open. Maybe they were cashiers, or servers in the tea room. Maybe they visited during the holiday season with their own families. How many memories could one building hold?
Of course, there’s no answer. But I started to think if she designed a shirt as a nod to Shepards, I’m sure those memories would come rushing back for so many others.
That’s exactly what Teespringer Derek Thomas has done with his Madison Hardware Co. commemorative tees. Madison Hardware Co. was once the most famous Lionel train store in New York City, full of toy trains and parts. Lionel is a top manufacturer of model trains and accessories - an American classic. Madison Hardware Co. was a collector’s dream, known for personal service and the best stock around. It closed in 1989, but the legacy lives on.
As a 20-something train collector, Derek never had the pleasure of visiting Madison himself, but wanted to preserve its place in the toy train community. That’s what brought him to Teespring, and now that community of train enthusiasts are reliving their own fond memories through the shirt.
We sat down for a one-on-one to find out more about this commemorative tee, and original idea.
Q: What was the motivation behind the tee - do you have a personal connection, or fond memories?
A: The motivation for the Madison Hardware shirt is to keep a name alive that represented almost hallowed ground in the toy train community. Madison Hardware was THE place to go if you needed parts or an odd item that Lionel Trains produced from about 1925 all the way through the late 1980’s. Folks would place orders and travel from all over the United States just to visit Madison Hardware. When the New York store closed in the late 1980’s, New York City, and the train community as a whole, lost a major icon. I was too young to ever visit the store, but if you ask most Lionel collectors if they know the name Madison Hardware, they’ll immediately respond.
Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your community?
A: Folks love the shirt so far. We have sold almost 100 shirts in just three weeks. For a small community, that’s a big deal. Many people have sent their memories of Madison Hardware along to me since we announced the shirt. I’m just glad to keep the name alive and bring back some good memories for those who visited the store.
Q: Do you plan to offer additional designs in the future?
A: Yes! The response has been so wonderful that we do plan to move forward with other projects. Lionel Trains has even reached out to me to discuss the shirts and what they represent to the hobby. I want to give folks something vintage and classy that they can wear in public. The train folks know what it is, and everyone else just sees a neat vintage shirt. I aim to keep bringing out these same kind of designs.
Take a stroll down memory lane and see what you find along the way. Identify people, places and things that shaped your world. Are there icons, phrases or symbols that would work well in a design? After all, everybody loves a good throwback.