Credit: Tracy J. Lee

Why are there four T-shirt shops within a block of each other in Andersonville? Strolling north on Clark from Foster Avenue one soon understands the absurdity of that question because “T-shirt shops” have about as much in common with one another as “restaurants.” Strange Cargo (est. 1983) moved here from Wrigleyville in 2018 and specializes in pop culture graphic tees at $20 to $25 a pop. Across the street at Raygun (est. 2004) it’s “words on things, mostly shirts,” as the store manager put it, at about $23 each. A few steps farther, on the corner of Farragut, Transit Tees (est. 2001) sells Chicago-themed screen-printed shirts made at the original Wicker Park location for $28 on average. Take a right on Berwyn and you’ll find yourself at the T-Shirt Deli (est. 2003), where all shirts are made to order based on customer specifications and for $25 to $30 you can walk away with a unique tee gift-wrapped in butcher paper and packaged with a bag of Jays Potato Chips.

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t own T-shirts, but I’ve also never met an avid customer of T-shirt shops. Yet clearly, they’re out there, scouting for the perfect cotton-poly blend of short-sleeved body sheathing to convey to friends and strangers alike that they love Prince, that “Abortion rights are human rights!,” that they are from Chicago, or that they’re someone’s “Big Brudder.” In the most down-to-earth part of a most emotionally constipated country, the T-shirt presents a perfect opportunity to say something without having to speak, to fire an explosive first salvo for genuine human connection while remaining in a sartorial comfort zone, to make a statement without bothering with fashion. The T-shirt is the closest thing there is to skin, and far less controversial. Perhaps this is why four T-shirt shops can survive and thrive in such close proximity and why, along with bars and barber shops, they appear to be recession proof.