Beckley, West Virginia — It doesn’t exactly rival Tupac and Biggie, but something of an East Coast-West Coast war has broken out in the parking lot after Barack Obama’s town-hall meeting here in southern West Virginia. At issue is the lucrative t-shirt business the Obama campaign has spawned wherever the Democratic presidential candidate appears. Here in Beckley, several East Coast vendors who were hawking shirts for $10 before Obama’s rally have now, as the crowd is streaming out of the Beckley Convention Center, abruptly cut the price in half.
“Five dollars for the shirts! Five dollars for the shirts!” a vendor named Diligent Carrington, from Charlotte, North Carolina, calls out. “Five dollars for the shirts!”
A few feet away, Rufus Williams, a vendor from Fresno, California, is fuming. “We’re from Los Angeles,” he tells me. “We’re from the West. The other guys are from the East Coast. Which is O.K. We do different shows. But the thing is, they messed up the market when they started selling shirts for five dollars. I mean, if you want to be in the business, you can get ten dollars, fifteen dollars, but it’s not feasible to come from California to sell a shirt for five dollars.”
Williams’s West Coast associate, a man from Oakland who says his name is Supreme King, agrees. “They’re selling a messed-up shirt,” King tells me. “They make the other ones who sell quality stuff — look at this, this is quality — they make it bad for us.”
It’s all a matter of taste. The $10 West Coast shirts are pretty ornate, heavy on pictures of Obama, resembling black-velvet portraits. The $5 East Coast shirts are a bit simpler, white with messages like “This Time We Want A SMART President.” Neither is a knockout, but people are snapping them up.
The problem is, for all the demand, there’s a lot of supply. “It was alright until everybody started getting in on it,” says a vendor named Tom Jones (“Yeah — you know, like ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’”). Jones tells me he’s been selling Obama shirts since the campaign’s earliest days. “When we first started out — you know, like last year at the thing with Oprah and all that stuff — it was good then, you know what I’m saying?” Now, however, it’s a tougher market. Shortly after this stop, Jones is heading to Miami for the start of the Jay-Z/Mary J. Blige tour.
But Obama may end up being bigger than Jay-Z. Even though Beckley is not a major stop on the senator’s tour — the crowd is about 3,000, which, while sizable for Beckley, does not compare to the truly large audiences Obama draws elsewhere — hundreds of t-shirts change hands. Carrington tells me he sold about twelve dozen shirts — nine dozen at the $10, before-the-rally price, and another three dozen at the $5 after-the-rally figure. The other guys are selling a lot, too. Just in this one rather out-of-the-way location, that’s a pretty good business.
The Obama campaign tells me it has “no relationship” with the on-site vendors. The campaign sells its own merchandise, on its website, for considerably higher prices — $20.08 for a basic t-shirt. In addition to his record fundraising, Obama has pulled in millions from merchandise sales, and will make millions more if he wins the Democratic nomination. He’s doing so well, in fact, that if you try to order from the campaign’s website, you’ll get this note: “Due to our recent overwhelming number of orders, some items might be delayed in shipping by two-three weeks. We apologize for this delay and appreciate your understanding.”
That’s fine for a campaign to say, but not these guys out on the sidewalks doing the real work. Even though they all say they support Obama politically, there’s no question they’re looking out for themselves. At the moment, though, their political favorite is also their meal ticket. “Obama, it’s a beautiful thing,” Carrington tells me, “because it’s almost as if he’s created opportunities without even being in office.”
“He’s helped feed my family,” Carrington continues, “so it’s like, man, you got to support a situation like that, and then when you think about it, at the end of the day, it’s basically the American Dream applied and exercised in a low-level form with these t-shirts. You know what I mean? You’ve got a shirt. People want the shirt. It’s made at a good price. The people are happy with the shirt. I’m happy. I make the sale. I get to feed my family. Their family is happy. Everybody’s happy. And the most beautiful thing about it is, there’s a common objective. It’s about Obama.”
The next day, Obama is heading to Portland, Oregon. The guys here won’t be going; the trip would be just too expensive. Instead, they’ll be heading to Pennsylvania for Obama’s bus tour, scheduled to begin Friday. “He needs some campaigning there,” Supreme King tells me. “Hillary thinks she’s got that state won.”