Nick's Picks: Aaron's Alley
I am a poser. I wear Patagonia but I do not like the outdoors. I wear Carhartt but I do not do manual labor. I wore Thrasher without knowing it was a magazine. So, with that being said, I had no reservations when I walked into Aaron’s Alley on Monroe Avenue looking for the perfect Grateful Dead shirt, despite never having listened to the Grateful Dead.
The legendary jam band, which was formed in 1965, is experiencing a mainstream cultural relevance that it has not felt in years. In May 2017, one of the Dead’s most fabled live performances, Cornell 1977, was released for the first time on a three-disc CD album. Two months later Amazon Prime released a Martin Scorsese–produced docuseries about the band titled Long Strange Trip. While nostalgia swelled with these releases, the Dead’s newest iteration, Dead and Company, which features band members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, along with the addition of millennial rock god John Mayer, toured the U.S., attracting hordes of original Dead fans as well as younger generations.
As the Dead’s popularity returned in the past few years, the fashion industry took note. Psychedelic tie-dye concert shirts with classic Dead iconography like skeletons, skulls, jesters, and dancing bears have always been worn by loyal fans as a badge of honor. However, with Mayer, who is as much a sartorial tastemaker as any celebrity, often draped in these shirts at shows, the appeal has spread far beyond actual Dead fans. Now, people like me, who are almost as likely to be struck by lightning as they are to attend a Dead show, are seeking out the merchandise in several forms.
The cheapest, most convenient, and probably least authentic way to grab Dead-themed clothing is through fast-fashion retailers like Urban Outfitters, who have obtained licenses to use the Dead’s name and images to create their own takes on famous designs. For a more personal touch, dozens of D.I.Y. artists and designers have taken to social media to sell unique garments featuring the band’s iconography. Perhaps the biggest success story of this ilk has been Online Ceramics, a duo of former art students who hand-make fantastically trippy, limited edition shirts that frequently sell out in minutes. The duo, whose price per shirt hovers around $60, helped build a fanbase by following Dead and Company from show to show while selling hundreds of their shirts out of duffel bags in the open-air market that is a Dead show tailgate. To obtain the real thing, though—authentic, vintage Dead merchandise—there is a price to pay. These extremely rare garments, preserved from decades ago, can be found on fashion resale sites for more than twenty times their original value. On Ebay, a men’s extra-large Dead shirt from a 1993 concert in Eugene, Oregon, will set shoppers back $249.99.
Luckily, for local Dead fans, Aaron’s Alley offers a compromise between authenticity and price. The storefront on Monroe does not carry vintage Dead merch, (current owner Jennifer Yackel tells me that no one wants to give up their original shirts) but they do carry reasonably priced reprints of the band’s most iconic designs. For $28.99, I picked up a reprint of an orange, yellow, purple, and green tie-dye shirt with the signature skull and dancing bears, made for the band’s 1995 shows in Las Vegas, Portland, and Seattle.
Aaron’s Alley is not a product of recent Dead hype however, it was formed twenty-eight years ago with the band in its D.N.A. The store, founded by the late Aaron Plunkett, who was considered a pillar of the Monroe Avenue community, began as a place to buy Dead merchandise and find rare tapes of live concerts. Plunkett, who was lauded in a Democrat and Chronicle article for his warm, friendly personality, developed countless relationships with other fans while taping Dead shows. These relationships, forged by the Dead’s music, are at the foundation of Aaron’s Alley. Throughout its history, Aaron’s Alley has stayed afloat with extensive collections of clothing and other Dead merchandise as well as a welcoming atmosphere created by Plunkett and his staff. On any given day, one can see shoppers at Aaron’s Alley searching through concert shirts, exploring a wide selection of candles, incense, jewelry, and other knick-knacks, or simply reminiscing with staff about shows gone by.
Follow Nick’s Picks on Twitter at @NickAbreu585.