The Swarthmore Campus & Community Store is the premier on-campus destination for textbooks, toiletries, and anything in between. Its primary offering, however, is an array of Swarthmore-themed clothing and merchandise that welcome students and visitors as they walk through the store’s front doors. Hoodies, t-shirts, and tote bags emblazoned with the Swarthmore or Garnet logo proliferate throughout campus, adorning students looking to show some school spirit or just to bundle up in the cold Pennsylvania winter.
Whereas most other collegiate bookstores are run by external private corporations that the administration contracts with, the Swarthmore Campus & Community Store is an entirely in-house operation run by college employees who have a passionate connection with the Swarthmore community. The Store’s jovial employees give the business its distinct small-town feel, which is so evocative of the campus that it represents. We, The Phoenix, are thankful to the Store’s employees and management for providing such a space and a service to the community.
As such a unique establishment, we would like to encourage the Store to embrace its homely and whimsical personality in more of the products that it offers. Some of the Store’s most recognizable and beloved items are comical t-shirts such as “People’s Republic of Swarthmore” and “Swarthmore Academics”, or graphical offerings such as the tote bag designed by artist Julia Gash that playfully commemorates campus landmarks.
These items draw our attention because they are precisely not what one would find at the UPenn bookstore (which is contracted out to Barnes & Nobles). They speak to Swarthmore-specific experiences and aesthetics, highlighting the vibrancy of our campus culture. While the vast athletic apparel offerings at the store are a great way of showing support and pride in the multitude of sports teams at Swarthmore, this ocean of Champion hoodies and sweatpants printed with various permutations of the Swarthmore or Garnet logo is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from what one might find at a bookstore contracted out to a private company.
We, The Phoenix, would like to urge the Store to build upon its unique offerings by tapping into the talent and creativity that flows through the student body. The Store ought to be representative of Swarthmore not just at the level of the Parrish logo, but at the level of individual clubs, groups, and individuals. Some of the most popular Swarthmore apparel seen around campus is not created or sold by the Store at all — shirts made by the Arboretum, by affinity groups, by individual artists, by academic departments, and other such organizations. These uniquely-designed shirts are a way for students to showcase and take pride in their involvement in campus life. The Store has a golden opportunity to use its resources and infrastructure to print this apparel which is representative of the real student experience available more broadly.
It makes financial sense why the Store’s offerings are mostly generic variations on a theme. Like any other business, the Store wants to ensure its customer base is as wide as possible to ensure the sale of as many products as possible. This business mentality sticks to the universal common denominator of Swarthmore logos. We are by no means asking the Store to stop selling these items, or even to divert their primary focus from these items. We are merely suggesting that, considering the success of some of the more esoteric offerings available at the store, there is an underserved market for such products that showcase specific attributes of Swarthmore campus life.
We must also note the important constructive role that exclusivity and uniqueness play in generating the value of some of Swarthmore’s most beloved attire. It makes sense that the store should not start selling t-shirts that correspond to affinity groups or academic departments. Wearing an Enlace t-shirt, or a Sociology/Anthropology t-shirt, is a mark of membership and pride in a particular organization. The exclusivity of such an item is precisely what gives it its value and meaning, and selling such an item to the general public at the Store would devalue it (and would be weirdly appropriative or performative). What we are saying, then, is that the store should try to emulate this in-group merchandising model towards products that represent larger-scale campus life entities but are nevertheless specific enough to be uniquely representative of Swarthmore.
For example, the Store could collaborate with the campus’ beloved student-run Crumb Cafe to sell t-shirts emblazoned with avocado-toast and milkshakes. They could sell shirts commemorating campus events such as winter formal, Screw your Roommate, Worthstock, and the like.
The Store should work with student artists to offer unique student-made designs to the campus community. The annual Arboretum t-shirts featuring a student-made design are ever-popular on campus — the Store could apply this same model to great success. The startup costs and infrastructure an individual student needs to mass-print and distribute a custom-made t-shirt is a significant barrier to budding student artists. The Store could leverage their relationships with apparel printing companies to produce t-shirts featuring such student work. The Store already offers such services to departments and affinity groups, fulfilling custom apparel printing orders at competitive prices (much cheaper than CustomInk and related services) by working with local printing firms. As such, the Store could expand this model to begin selling the custom-ordered shirts to general customers rather than creating them for one-off in-group use.
In addition to an increased variety of product designs, the Store could offer a wider range of available price points. Many of the Store’s current apparel offerings are exorbitantly expensive precisely because they are generic prints of the Swarthmore logo on brand name clothing items. For instance, Champion hoodies cost from $40 to $70 because the customer is upcharged for two brandings simultaneously — the Swarthmore logo and the Champion logo. More down-to-earth offerings, such as student-designed tote bags or funny Swarthmore-specific t-shirts, would be less expensive and thus more readily available to the student body as a whole.
There is no doubt that the Parrish logo is the most iconic trademark of Swarthmore College. But it is not the most insightful or significant representation of its student body. The Store should strive to go beyond the surface level logos, and to instead engage with the true student experience in a meaningful and inclusive way.