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Posted on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 4:20 p.m.

New owner: Moe Sports Shop won't be changed after sale to Underground Printing of Ann Arbor

By Paula Gardner


A customer leaves Moe Sports Shop on North University in Ann Arbor, where customers have bought the store's sports apparel since 1915.

Lon Horwedel |

No one connected to the sale of Moe Sport Shops wants Ann Arbor to mourn its transition.

Bud VanDeWege Jr. looks forward to new career opportunities. His father, who started working at the store in 1964, bought it in 1971 and stopped by daily even after his son took over, is ready to finally retire.

And the buyers - University of Michigan fans and graduates who’ve built an $8.5 million retail business in 8 states - say they value the store’s tradition and don’t want to change it.

Moe’s, as it is more familiarly known to its customers, was sold in March to Underground Printing, which now has a long-term lease for the building, owned by the VanDeWege family. The shop has been located on North University Avenue at the edge of U-M’s Diag since 1915,

The move, VanDeWege says, adds Moe’s the list of what he calls “the dying breed of family owned stores with real connections to the community.”

But instead of closing or reshaping Moe’s, Underground Printing will carry on the store’s 95-year legacy and name in Ann Arbor, preserving the connections forged by two generations of VanDeWeges. That makes the sale of the campus-area institution - described as one of Ann Arbor’s original iconic retailers - a positive step for the long-time owners and buyers.

“What we’re so thrilled about is that we have local ownership. They were customers of ours,” VanDeWege said. “They grew up around the business, and they understand its value and name, and want to carry on the tradition.”

The deal originated in March when a vendor of both Moe’s and Underground Printing suggested that VanDeWege talk to Underground Printing owners Ryan Gregg and Rishi Narayan.

There were no plans to sell or find a buyer, VanDeWege said. But over the past four years, he’d been working as a sports equipment sales rep, a job that pulled him out of the store as he plugged into that role.

“I was not soliciting any interest in (selling) the business at all,” he said.

But on some level he knew that something had to change.

“It was becoming harder and harder to do the job that both of them required to the best of my ability,” he said. “The store was being sacrificed in that process.”

So the hunch of that vendor paid off, as Gregg and Narayan realized that the store would fit into their own expansion plans.

Underground Printing has grown into a 14-store business with a 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Scio Township and a recently expanded spirit wear store on South University.

Their business, born in the West Quad dormitory whey they were undergraduates, was founded out of their own excitement over U-M sports and their understanding of how to market products to students.


Moe Sports Shops: History

  • Bud VanDeWege Jr. worked summers in the store as a teen, but took over from his father full-time in fall 1992 after coaching women’s basketball at U-M for several years.
  • Bud VanDeWege, 81, started working in the store in 1964. He bought the store in 1971 from Harold S. Trick, the second owner of Moe’s.
  • The store was founded by George J. Moe in 1915.

Inside the store

  • U-M memorabilia and antique sporting equipment decorate the 2,800-square-foot store. Examples visible this spring include a photo of Tom Harmon with his Heisman Trophy, vintage football pants with the Moe’s mark and a vintage racquet cover.
  • The store did undergo some changes under VanDeWege Jr., like the addition of a kids’ apparel room. A closeout and housewares store opened, then was closed. A second store on South State closed in 2006.
  • The fixtures in the store are original. They include walnut modular cabinets behind the register, where shoes used to be stored, and pegs along the walls that used to display golf clubs.

About Underground Printing

  • It was founded and is still based in Ann Arbor.
  • It operates 14 locations in 8 states and employs 81.
  • Sales are projected to hit $8.5 million this year.
  • A store in Lexington, Ky., opened in March; stores in Iowa and North Carolina are next.
  • The core business is custom screen printing.
One key to their success, Gregg said, is looking for the best locations, as close to a campus as possible.

They found that on South University. Now they’ve got it in the Moe’s store at the other end of the Diag. And Gregg insists that they serve two distinct - and robust - markets.

“We knew that State Street was a whole different area,” Gregg said. “No one outside of Ann Arbor would believe you, but they’re two separate worlds.”

In Moe’s, Gregg said, they found a business that fits theirs perfectly - but would be impossible to recreate.

“The question is,” Gregg said, “how do you move that forward?”

Long ago at Moe’s, Champion experimented with putting U-M’s brand on its basic athleticwear. Eventually the market for college logo merchandise exploded, and by 2011 it’s projected to become a $336 billion industry. Today, U-M merchandise can be found everywhere from discount stores to department stores, and in multiple storefronts near campus. The university reaps close to $5 million per year in royalties from those sales.

Under VanDeWege, the business stayed vital - and true to its tradition - despite massive changes in the fan apparel business. The market is saturated, VanDeWege said, while demand for U-M items has dropped due to subpar football and basketball seasons.

“We had to adjust to the needs and demands of the times and try to grow,” VanDeWege said.

Moe’s survives that climate by staying focused on its original goal of providing the best quality and by capitalizing on the loyalty it builds with students who turn into alumni.

Among those loyal students-turned alumni are the Underground Printing co-founders.

“Moe’s is one of the place when you were a student you’d say, ‘This is the best stuff out there,’” Gregg said. “… It had the best product, the most tradition, the local flavor. The things we really liked and respected and admired.”

Now, as the store’s owners, they plan to bring their own brand of the same tenets that guided Moe’s for years: Service and personal connections.

While insisting that the essence of Moe’s won’t change, Gregg already is looking for ways to improve it. His stores rotate displays on sidewalks, giving pedestrians a chance to discover the merchandise. Sale items will be “our best stuff,” he said, to build repeat customers. Shoppers will be able to find high-quality items, but also some popular trends.

The goal, he said, is to keep the store a shopping destination in a town that he describes as the “best collegiate market in the country.”

VanDeWege says the new energy coming into the store and Underground Printing’s momentum will help the store in the future.

“They’re not only in touch with what’s going on at Michigan’s campus, … they’re able to respond to the market on college campuses everywhere,” he said.

Underground Printing hired all 10 of the Moe’s employees, and VanDeWege Sr., at 81, still stops by the store daily. The transition has been smooth, Gregg and VanDeWege agree.

“We are very much at peace with the decision we made,” VanDeWege said. “(Moe’s) needed some changes. The competitive environment is such that we were going to have to do some things.”

What he hopes shoppers see now at Moe’s is a store that still has a family feel, but “with their incredible energy and current ideas.”

Gregg, whose business has grown through establishing new stores, shares that vision.

“You can always make something new,” he said. “But some things you’ll never be able to recreate, so you’d better hold onto them.”



Mon, Jul 19, 2010 : 12:38 a.m.

lets hope it doesn't turn into an empty storefront like that t-shirt shop did.


Sun, May 2, 2010 : 8:03 a.m.

Good luck to the VanDeWeges. I worked for Bud Sr. at the N.U. store stocking shelves after school in the mid 60s while I was attending Tappan. Back then they actually had a pretty full line of sporting goods and not just apparel.


Sat, May 1, 2010 : 12:48 p.m.

I am glad that they are maintaining tradition. Change is scary and not pleasant in a lot of ways, and I think their approach --at least publicly--is welcome. I will continue to support Moe Sport Shops both online and in person. It is a jewel. Now, will Underground Printing please bring back Drakes?

Susan Montgomery

Sat, May 1, 2010 : 8:35 a.m.

Great to see Underground Printing doing so well! Thanks, Rishi and Ryan for putting your entrepreneurial skills to good use here in Michigan!


Sat, May 1, 2010 : 7:32 a.m.

This story regarding a local business at least has a happy ending. It's good that a locally-owned business has bought them out. But, so many of the long-time Ann Arbor family-run businesses have had to close in the last 5-10 years. Although the big chains and big box stores have their place, it would be a sad day if sometime in the future we didn't have any locally-owned retail businesses.

Stupid Hick

Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 9:45 p.m.

Will the store have a new name? I thought the name used to be "Moe Sport Shops"?


Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 9:19 p.m.

I remember getting my first UM jersey as a kid at Moe's. (#1 for Anthony Carter) It was such a big deal to get it there instead of at some other store. Getting something at Moe's on game day was beyond special.


Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 8:47 p.m.

You can always make something new, he said. But some things youll never be able to recreate, so youd better hold onto them. Moe's epitomizes the look and feel of what an Ann Arbor "Sport Shop is all about. You cannot buy that type of marketing presence. It is made, over time. It is is incredibly difficult to recreate that atmosphere. Mr Gregg's words should be the mantra for how we best preserve what makes Ann Arbor unique, while moving forward. These words, expressed by a savvy Ann Arbor entrepreneur are a ringing endorsement of how important it is to preserve what makes Ann Arbor unique and not bulldoze it's rich history for a few more dollars.


Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 4:34 p.m.

I remember when underground printing started. It is really nice they keep growing and preserve "tradition!"