I can’t remember exactly when or where I first spotted one. It was probably at a summertime barbecue, or maybe on a camping trip with friends. It might have been green, or blue, or heather black. Wherever it was, I know I smiled at the lettering below the trees-and-mountains logo: “Salem, USA Elevation 214 Feet.”
Little did I know that I was staring at what would become a mini-fashion trend among outdoorsy Salemites. T-shirts for Salem Summit Company, an outdoor gear store that opened downtown on State Street in March 2012, frequently pop up around town — and out on the Northwest’s trails, rivers and mountains. I rarely go out in Salem anymore without seeing one of the shirts on a stranger. And they frequently show up on at least one of my friends (and often more than one) at our gatherings.
I visited the store once or twice right after it opened, but definitely wasn’t a frequent customer. Yet the more I saw my friends wearing the shirts, the more I felt that I needed one, too. Yes, they were a nice way to support a local business. But it was more than that. They were soft. They came in cool colors. The logo was vaguely retro, simple but cool, very Northwest. And everyone suddenly seemed to have one.
So my husband and I both went in and bought shirts. His was heather black, and mine was blue — two of the original colors. Since then, the shirts have been printed in a large array of other hues, from fluorescent orange with black lettering to a more subtle slate gray with a green logo. A limited number even come in tie-dye, hand-created by store owner Al Tandy and his friends (although they haven’t sold too well and probably won’t be restocked).
Other businesses in Salem have shirts with their own logos, but none seem to have reached the level of popularity of those from Salem Summit. When I asked 30-year-old Tandy how many of his t-shirts he’d sold, he had to look it up, and the size of the number surprised him: about 1,000. That makes them the most popular item in his store, hands down, he says.
“I keep hearing from everyone that they’re just all over the place, which is really cool,” Tandy says. “I have had some business owners come up to me and say, ‘How’d you do it? How’d you make your shirt so successful?’ But that was never, ever the intention. It was just a fun thing to do and have along with outdoor equipment.”
So what is it about these particular shirts that appeals to people? I thought of my friend Jeremy, who started wearing a Salem Summit shirt before he had even set foot in the store. His wife, Sarah, bought one for him when she visited the shop for the first time, “just because it was a cool-looking shirt,” he says.
I asked Tandy about the shirt design process. Before moving to Salem from Oklahoma three years ago, he worked at another outdoor gear shop, Stillwater Summit Company (Tandy admits he chose his store’s moniker in tribute to his old workplace, but the two businesses are unconnected). The Oklahoma store sold its own logoed shirts that customers enjoyed, Tandy says, so when he opened his business in Salem, he knew he wanted to do the same.
He created the store logo, which graces the front of the shirts, in collaboration with a friend in Oklahoma. Then he found a local graphic designer to create the back logo.
“I wanted something very simple, something that had a slightly retro feel to it,” Tandy says. “I think when you see outdoor stores, you don’t want to see something flashy and new. You want to see something simple and comforting. So that’s why it kind of looks like clip art, but it’s just basic.”
Design in hand, Tandy went to local company Someone Clothing to print the tees. He chose shirts made by American Apparel, because he liked their color options and the comfort of their half-polyester, half-cotton tee.
“It’s just a really comfortable, soft shirt,” he says. “And it still works kind of as a technical shirt that you can wear on the trail. It’s quick-drying, and things like that. … You don’t want to spend $20 on a junky logoed shirt. You want a shirt that’s gonna last, and wash well, and wear well, and be comfortable.”
This definitely rang true for why I liked the shirt. But what did all those other t-shirt owners think? I decided to ask some of them.
A few weeks ago, Salem Is hosted a gathering of people wearing their Salem Summit shirts. We thought it would be fun to see how many we could round up in one place for a group photo. About 60 people — ranging in age from toddlers to seniors — showed up at Riverfront Park in their shirts.
Jennifer Shattuck, a lifelong Salem resident who sported a red shirt with green lettering, told me she planned to give out the tees as Christmas presents this year, and that “when people I know graduate from college, they’ll get one.”
Isaac Folsom — who already owned a heather black shirt and bought a pink one for his 2-year-old daughter, Ari, specifically for the photo shoot — said he likes the tee’s fit.
“It’s got more of an athletic shirt feel, rather than a white cotton shirt,” Folsom said. “It’s lightweight, too, which is good when you’re doing activities.”
“He’s picky about his shirts, too,” his wife, Leyla, added. “I was surprised when he came home with one.”
So the shirt looks and feels nice. But when I asked them why it was so special to them, their answers were a bit different.
Shattuck and her husband, Steve, gushed about how much they love having a good local gear shop. They spoke highly of Tandy, and said they’d attended most of his events at the store — including classes on how to make pizza and cinnamon rolls over a camp stove.
Folsom also spoke of his desire to support a local business. “It’s cool that we have something like this in our community, where you can go in, and they know your name, and they remember you and what you’ve bought before, without having to look it up in a computer.”
I thought back to my visits to Salem Summit Company. Whenever my husband and I saw Tandy there, he chatted with us and seemed genuinely thankful that we’d chosen to come into his store. His staff of three always was friendly and willing to answer questions or give advice about gear. And when they didn’t carry the specific items or colors we wanted, they went out of their way to special order products for us.
When I asked Tandy why he thinks his t-shirts are so popular, he told me, “It’s just fun to support a shirt that supports what you like, whether people like the outdoors, or the store specifically, or Salem.”
When it comes down to it, maybe that’s the ultimate reason behind the trend. You could get a comfortable, attractive, American Apparel shirt online or at a mall. But when the shirt also displays a logo for a small, local business — and business owner — that you love and want to succeed, then adding it to your wardrobe feels like the right thing to do.
Salem Is co-editor Sarah Evans will never forget the time four of her friends wore their Salem Summit Company shirts simultaneously — unplanned and without consulting each other — during a trip to Sisters.
Nicole McDavid sees a lot of Salem Summit shirts working as an urban farmer. She was wearing hers while taking these photos.