The first thing you’ll notice after walking in the front door of Uptown Dog T-Shirts is the massive amounts of clothing fit into the small retail shop. Neon tank tops — a hot commodity for fest season — sporting Ohio University pride pop out against the typical OU green, white and black t-shirts and sweatshirts. Beyond the cash register is a storage area with boxes full of merchandise strewn about in what I am sure is an organized storage system. Amid the myriad boxes are two desks sitting next to each other, both housing a computer and both cluttered with notebooks, folders, stray papers, pens, pencils and desk decorations. Behind one desk sits the storeowner, Mary Cheadle, busy at work. The store manager and artist Colleen Phillips occupies the desk next her. The two sisters give the distinct impression that they are quite comfortable where they are sitting, and I don’t mean that they are lounging in La-Z-Boy chairs. They give the distinct impression that they are at home in this store.
A family business, Uptown Dog has been a staple of the Athens community for 26 years. Cheadle bought the store, originally called The Dog, from her brother in 1997 after graduating with an art education degree.
“I thought it would just be a temporary thing until a teaching job opened up,” Cheadle said. “But within a few years, I realized how much I loved it and how much I loved working for myself.”
Phillips, ten years her sister’s junior, was able to share in that love of being her own boss as well after she joined Uptown Dog as its manager and artist. Her work can be seen through the shop’s retail merchandise. The Bobcat apparel at first glance may seem like the same type of clothing you come across in the bookstores on campus, but upon closer inspection it is apparent that Uptown Dog uses a different strategy than other shops uptown.
“You know, we are different than the bookstores and we do things that are a little bit more in your face,” Cheadle said. “It is hard to compete with them because they’re so big and because they have the book end of it, so they’re already drawing the students in for that. So the only way we can compete is by price.”
“Plus, by being a little edgier,” Phillips said. “The bookstores aren’t gonna do ‘Turn Down for What.’”
The phrase “turn down for what,” the title of a popular party song by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, will be gracing Uptown Dog’s t-shirts and tank tops for this spring semester’s fest season.
Cheadle and Phillips, 47 and 37, credit their student employees for keeping them up to date with the popular phrases and trends among OU students.
“We never would have known that [‘turn down for what’] would be a thing, but that’s something that’s current and can help us reach our market,” Cheadle said. “And that’s because of students we employ here. We [utilize them] specifically not only so that hopefully people say, ‘Oh, Mark works there. I’m gonna try to shop there,’ but they can also kind of keep us in tune with the trends and phrases that we would never have known otherwise.”
The student employees are not the only reason Uptown Dog is set apart from other OU apparel shops around town. The business has a large social media presence that allows it to interact with students and keep up with big weekends on campus such as Sibs’, Moms’ and Dads’ Weekends, as well as Homecoming and Halloween.
“We’ve gotten such good results from Twitter that we have phased out any major newspaper advertisements for the most part,” Cheadle said.
“Not only does it give us advertising for free,” Phillips said, “but we get to see a new personality of students every four years. What they like, what they’re reading, what they’re talking about.”
The sisters will even sometimes hire a DJ to play in the alley next to their store on weekends like Moms’ Weekend to draw the crowds away from College Gate and Court Street and onto West Union.
“When moms and dads come into town, we know that’s a time that student are buying things because Mom and Dad are here to buy them for them,” Phillips said. “So we’re saying, ‘We’re down here and we have the lowest prices.’”
The sisters’ efforts to incorporate so much OU merchandise into their store stems from the fact that they were born and raised in Athens, Ohio, and both graduated from OU. Their father worked as the Sports Information Director for the university and started a family with their mother in Athens. Because they have lived in Athens their entire lives, Cheadle and Phillips perhaps appreciate the city more than most who frequent it for a few years and then move away. They stayed in Athens after graduation and began their own company because they were small town girls who appreciated Athens and didn’t want to raise their families in a big city.
“The nice thing is when we hear about people coming to Athens from out of state or another part of Ohio and they stay here. They decide to open a business or decide they want to be a teacher here,” Phillips said. “I always like to ask people, ‘You’re an alumni, you’re not from here, but you stayed here. What made you stay here?’ They say, ‘When we went here it was just beautiful.’ This campus draws you to itself. The Appalachian area around it, the hiking and the lakes are definitely attractions. It’s not very touristy, but it’s nice to see the people who appreciate it. We tend to overlook that stuff because we’ve lived here all our lives.”
Athens has a unique ability to support local independent businesses rather than large chain businesses. Cheadle and Phillips cite the fact that when students leave town, there is a 20,000-something drop in the population, so if a business can’t cater to the Athens community then it can’t be sustained.
“What happens is that art-form type places are the places that survive,” Cheadle said. “Students are gone. Professors are vacationing. There is extreme downtime. Unless you cater to local people as well, it’s hard to maintain a busy atmosphere. That’s why we do wholesales so that as soon as [students] are gone we can continue hitting the market.”
Uptown Dog’s two separate entities include its retail business and its wholesale business, where customers can order unique prints for their groups or companies and buy directly from Uptown Dog. One of its biggest customers is Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, another independent business close to Athens.
However much the wholesale business supports Uptown Dog while the students are away, there is no question that OU students play an imperative role in the store’s success. Cheadle and Phillips could have turned the business away from being so reliant on the university. They did, after all, carry more than just OU gear during the company’s early days (Grateful Dead merch, Bob Marley gear, hackey sacks, etc.). However, the sisters phased most of that out until the business’ purpose was primarily to sell Athens-centric clothing.
Perhaps that was a result of the sisters’ deep connection to Athens and Ohio University.
“I’ve been going to OU games with my dad since I was old enough to remember,” Phillips said. “It’s kind of trickled down to my kids.”
Both Phillips and Cheadle are married with children, and say that running their own business is a blessing when it comes to raising a family at the same time.
“Our number one priority is to be a mom first,” Phillips said. “And that’s what’s nice about this is that — not that we’re able to take off on a whim, because we’re running this place — but it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Hey, one of my kids is sick.’ I don’t necessarily need to have a sick day to take off… Our priority is to our kids.”
Between Cheadle and Phillips, they have six children, and the two women hope that their children will keep the family business alive once they’re ready to throw in the towel.
“I hope that it’s something that we pass down to our children,” Cheadle said. “They all have different ideas on what they want to do, but chances are that with as many as we have, somebody will want to carry it on.”
As long as businesses like Uptown Dog thrive, Athens will continue to be a place that students and alumni cherish and come back to, and that is what makes it so special.
There is a reason that the fun, casual, family-run business that serves the interest of both students and permanent Athens residents has been a city staple for over 25 years. Together, Cheadle and Phillips embrace what the city of Athens is all about.
“Mary and Colleen are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” said Uptown Dog employee Mark Lennon. “They’re super easy to work for and more like friends than bosses. I couldn’t have asked for better people to work for.”