CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- I had a story idea, which is to say I had a cheap stunt in mind. Starting at Gumby's (306 West Franklin St.), a dive of a pizza place, I was going to run east down the main drag of Chapel Hill., trying to spend $1,000 on Tar Heel trinkets and memorabilia in under 20 minutes.
Turns out, it was no challenge -- I would have only needed 10 minutes and could have spent far more than $1,000 -- so I had to adjust. I dropped the stunt for a more leisurely jaunt.
Whether at a fast clip or crawl, sports merchandising is an important business to understand for any fan of either small-town or international commerce.
And probably nowhere are America's twin obsessions with competition and commerce on better display than in this southern college town, home of the University of North Carolina -- the alma mater of Michael Jordan, football's Lawrence Taylor and untold championship sports teams, all wearing Carolina blue, the signature color of a Tar Heel.
The merger of competition and commerce all takes place on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill's main commercial strip. Franklin Street boasts several things along its tree-lined corridor, which makes for a beautiful college-town stroll at a relaxed southern gait.
At one level, you can achieve a level of impossible serenity. Franklin Street, which runs along one side of campus, is also a party site with no shortage of bars where all those college championships have been celebrated in bawdy fashion. There is a "what happens on Franklin Street stays on Franklin Street" vibe (you can even buy the T-shirt).
There is also a more modern concern about the strange site of empty storefronts, which is a top subject of the current town council race.
But my concern is cheap sports memorabilia, in part because little sports trinkets are such a part of the economy.
The national ability to make a fetish out of sports -- even college, or purportedly amateur sports -- is a large and growing industry.
From branded drinks to Kobe's No. 24 jersey, which replaced No. 8 to pump up sales, sports merchandising is, in all its overstated peculiarity, a force. Last year, $19.3 billion worth of it sold worldwide, which is up from $17.9 billion four years before, according to trade journal
Markers of all these millions spent in this economy, that runs, in part, on wretched excess, can be seen all up and down Franklin Street, from cheap trinkets to objects you'd never think of printing a logo memorializing a college team on.
How cheap is cheap? Well, at my first stop, beckoned in by a sign about the basketball season's fast-approaching start (practice is already underway), Johnny T-Shirt was selling "slightly irregular foam key chains" for only $1.99. For a bit more -- $3.19 -- a slightly irregular bullhorn could be all yours.
Not in the irregular section and costing a bit more at $7.99, you could even get your dog some bones and cookies in the shape of basketballs. Also at $7.99 were Tar Heel golf putter grippers (distinct from the beer-can huggers nearby), and for the comparatively whopping price of $79.98 (reduced from $99.95) you can raise a Tar Heel patio umbrella on your back deck.
Classic, a women's clothing store, had a somewhat gratuitous and pandering "Go Heels!" sign outside its store. Shrunken Head Boutiques, nearby, was all about moving Tar Heels product, though. There, signage outside offered everything from Tar Heel grill sets to hammers to satellite dish covers to fountains, clogs and musical bottle openers, which no Tar Heel fan should be without.
The commercial obsession goes beyond the product economy to the service end. There is a Tar Heel Barber/Style Shop; a nearby man obviously a bit down on his luck and trolling for handouts had a Tar Heel sign perched on his bucket, itself slapped with Tar Heel logos.
In a bit of a curiosity, it bears mentioning that the Tar Heel Bookstore has not a book in its window -- just basketballs, t-shirts and a powder-blue lounge chair. Books are relegated to the second floor.
In one of the town's oldest buildings -- the first three-floor structure, according to a plaque outside -- there is a sports bar named Sparky's, decorated by cartoon portraits of Tar Heel greats from Larry Brown to Rasheed Wallace.
At the end of my Chapel Hill shopping spree, I negated the idea of grabbing a slice of pizza at Gumby's. Despite the fact that Gumby green offered a relief from Carolina blue, my days of eating late night college pizza are long gone.
But I did have to hit Crook's Corner, further down (610 West Franklin). It is one of the best regarded southern cooking spots in the triangle, as it is called, which includes Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, where Duke Blue Devil paraphernalia rules. In my book, any restaurant with a pig on top, hubcaps on the side and overly generous helpings of southern cooking inside has to be a winner, and
Crook's Corner did not disappoint.
I recommend the jalapeno-cheddar puppies for an appetizer. Be warned, though, that enough come to feed a regiment, and well. The Carolina Sampler, with its black-pepper cornbread, pulled smoked pork and collared greens is a must, along with the shrimp and grits. A local Carolina microbrew washed all the top-flight food down.
Stumbling back slightly to my lodging (the modern and well-appointed
Franklin Hotel), I was left with only one question, which went well beyond America's obsession with both competition and commerce.
What in the world is a Tar Heel?
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At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
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