Lake Street Dive: A Progressive Little Outpost on the Prairie Northern Sun That Gives the People What They Want

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Lake Street Dive: A Progressive Little Outpost on the Prairie Northern Sun That Gives the People What They Want

Walk into the Northern Sun shop on East Lake Street in Minneapolis and you’d swear you were strolling Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s or 1970s. But the truth is, this former site of a public library and a Montessori school is no head shop, but a dying breed of progressive political swag outposts whose time has come and then some.

Born in 1979 in reaction to the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown and the start of the anti-war and anti-nuke Reagan-Bush years, Northern Sun has thrived as both a grassroots local business in the bustling Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, as well as one of the main go-to mail-order producers and distributors of the buttons, lawn signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts that have become de rigeur uniformes de la resistence in the Trump dark ages.

Marchers need their merch (Tax day is April 15!), so business is better than brisk these days. Especially popular are the Northern Sun-designed “Nevertheless She Persisted” and “Nasty Woman” stickers, buttons, T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, as well as the “All Are Welcome Here” lawn signs and “Coexist” everything.

Photo by Jim Walsh

“We’ve been busier, historically, but business has really taken off since the election,” said store manager Trentt Cramer, who these days is most proud of his latest T-shirt that demands, “Impeach Pussy Grabber.”

“The Bush years were big years for us, but we would prefer not to have big years and not have a president who’s going to nearly destroy the country. No thank you,” said Cramer.

Trump’s lies, tweets, and executive orders keep coming, and at every turn Northern Sun has been at the ready. “Every time Trump opens his mouth, we get to create a new product,” said Indigo Ashley DiRosa, who started at the shop after the election in November as a seasonal employee, but has stayed on thanks to the store’s expanding and exploding niche. “Every time he makes a decision about the travel ban, or says something nasty about women, or tells someone to shut up in Congress, then we get to be the voice of the people and throw it right back at him.”

Photo by Jim Walsh

Other favorites: “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Crap,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Human Rights,” “I Stand With Standing Rock,” “Black Lives Matter,” “We Were All Immigrants Once,” “Dump Trump,” and “Elizabeth Warren 2020.”

Can wearing a T-shirt, button, or bumper sticker really change the world?

“It all starts with the individual, and individuals in a group, and those people are making a statement that something is not OK and it needs to change,” said Cramer. “And that’s what our products are doing. Some of our products are not political, and they’re just [spiritual] or humorous. But most of them are about specific issues or topics—environment, politics, religion, feminism, women’s rights—and when an individual wears that button or puts that bumper sticker on their car, they are making a statement. And it does matter. Yeah. It matters.”

“Oh my god, it’s so rewarding,” said DiRosa. “To have someone say ‘You made my day,’ just because I sold them a T-shirt that says something on it that they believe in feels really good.”

Northern Sun may have the aura of an independent book or record store, but its impact goes beyond the shop itself and into the organizations it champions. The store makes regular contributions to Minneapolis’s oldest alternative community radio station KFAI-FM, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Women Against Military Madness.

Photo by Jim Walsh

It also helps fund the Standing Rock legal defense team, and last winter store founder Scott Cramer hauled a truckload of firewood to the protesters on the frozen North Dakota tundra.

“We’re not a business that’s quite as narrowly defined or pigeonholed by the hippies of the ‘60s,” said Trentt Cramer. “We don’t think people should just ignore politics, and there was a segment of the hippie movement that didn’t want anything to do with politics, and I get that, I understand that. But we don’t encourage that. We encourage people to engage. So we don’t [identify with] the hippies, but there’s a real connection to that era and people of that era; that age, my age, who were very serious people and really care and work hard to make change.”

Of all the messages Northern Sun has cranked out over the past four decades, Cramer said he’s proudest of Coexist, a notion of all religions getting along that has landed on cars, guitar cases, homes, and people all over the globe.

“We have carried the official ‘Coexist’ for many years,” said Cramer. “It was originally adapted from the Wailing Wall in Israel and then brought here, and a guy trademarked it and we licensed it.”

Finding kindred spirits around the globe

Northern Sun’s catalog hits mailboxes once every quarter, and inevitably generates the lion’s share of the hate calls the shop receives. Even still, most of the calls coming in these days are positive, coming from people who can’t believe the country and world we’re living in, and are happy to find some funny and freaky kindred spirits.

“One of the things that continues to surprise me is getting a call from some rural person who feels like we’re a lifeline because they feel so isolated,” said Trentt Cramer, whose brother Scott launched Northern Sun by selling T-shirts out of his car at anti-nuke rallies in 1979. “They know us, and they call us, and they get our catalog, and they just feel like it’s a connection in a sea of red. Those calls come from all over the country, and it’s a little bit of a therapy session, but it’s therapy for both of us because it’s nice to know that there’s people out there in rural areas who care, and for them it’s nice to know that someone understands.”

“One hundred packages go out a day, sometimes more,” said DiRosa. “It’s so busy. We get orders from Australia, Europe, South America, and all over the United States. What I like to say is that Northern Sun offers is a feeling of interconnectedness. We are bigger than politics, and all of this that’s been going on around us, and it feels to me like people come here to transcend the lies and dogma of our culture, and to feel like they’re not alone.”

Photo by Jim Walsh

Which is probably why one of Northern Sun’s hottest products at the moment is the T-shirt that goes, “LOVE your neighbor* *Your black, brown, immigrant, disabled, religiously different, LBGT, fully human neighbor.”

“The first catalog we sent out after the election, the cover headline was ‘Not My President,’ and we got a lot of hate calls,” said Cramer. “But most people are respectful, a few are not, but they just ask to be taken off our mailing list. Otherwise, I don’t know. We’re just a bunch of people, trying to make a living and getting the message out.”

Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer, columnist, songwriter, and the author of “Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s” and “Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes” (University Of Minnesota Press), and “The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History” (Voyageur Press). Follow him on Twitter @saintfabio.