Barack for Sale

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    Barack for Sale A bustling industry of Obama merchandise exists on 125th, but how much longer will it matter?

    TUCKED AMONG THE African oils and lotions, bootleg DVDs and self-help manuals, posters of Huey Newton and Rastafarian conspiracy theory pamphlets on 125th Street are goods emblazoned with the Democratic presidential nominee.

    Mass-produced, cheaply made and cheaply sold, the Obama goods—caps, shirts, jackets, wristwatches, books, buttons, posters and photos—on 125th are largely alike from table to table. Even as the nation’s imperiled economy has boosted the senator from Illinois over Sen. John McCain in the polls, Obama’s face has birthed a bustling micro-economy in the heart of Harlem.

    “He’s supporting so many people,” says Alex, who sells Obama buttons, three for $5, at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th.

    Obama goods have also flooded the rest of Manhattan—from the Canal Street storefronts where life-size stands of the 6-foot-1 senator sell for $25 to the tourist hives around Penn Station and Times Square— but in Harlem, where the ingenuity of street capitalism meets the ghosts of black history, the merchandise carries special meaning. On a recent weekday, at least 14 stalls on a threeblock stretch of 125th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Fifth Avenue carried Obama merchandise.

    According to Jack Brown, 35, a vendor on 125th,

    Obama’s “face on a T-shirt has become iconic” in Harlem, and will remain so long past Election Day. “This level of commerce is fully supported by [Obama],” says Brown, who has sold shirts on 125th Street for three years. “Just him running is an industry in itself.”

    The demand for Obama goods dwarfs that of anything else sold on this street. Brown designed his first Obama Tshirt because “people kept asking me. I printed my first batch Saturday and sold out in one day.” Debbie Smith, 51, recently added $10 Obama shirts to her table, and claims they “sell like crazy. I can’t keep enough.” At a bookstand on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Issa Ouetraogo, 25, was sold out of Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father and

    The Audacity of Hope. Ouetraogo said these titles are easily his most popular.

    Vendors travel to the wholesale district on West 28th Street to buy in bulk say business is brisk as well. Rashad Farrar, 19, works for Artistic Tees, a retailer and wholesaler of black history–themed shirts, located in Conyers, Ga. He estimated that 85 percent of the company’s business—which includes scores of other shirt designs—involves Obama merchandise. According to Farrar, New York is the largest destination for Artistic Tees’ wholesale orders.

    Gerald Matthews, 31, hand-makes Obama Tshirts that he painstakingly adorns with tiny crystals. His goods are unique on 125th and, as a result, a flock of people routinely crowds his table. Despite the attention, Matthews sells few shirts, since he charges $30 for them due to a labor-intensive process and costly materials. Half a block away, wholesale screen prints are sold for a third or a sixth of the price. On Wednesday afternoon, as a red tour bus inched past his booth, Matthews turned toward the street and hoisted up a headless mannequin dressed in one of his shirts.The passengers snapped photos and then the light at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard turned green: the bus carried away rare customers who might have spent $30 on a shirt.

    Tuesday, Nov. 4 looms as a critical day for the continued profitability of Obama goods. While an Obama loss could mean dwindling interest, Ken believes the items are a cresting trend that will be supplanted by something new: “It’s Harlem. It’s hot right now; it sells. After the election all this stuff is going away. It’s all about money.”

    Regardless, the sheer volume of current sales means that Obama merchandise will be seen for a long time to come on 125th Street: on the backs, wrists, heads and chests of the customers who walk this street every day.