Going underground: the not-so-secret secret of Athens

Those who are bold enough to travel to the very end of Court Street will stumble upon one of the crown jewels of Athens shops: Athens Underground.

There aren’t many places I can go that make me more giddy than Athens Underground. The vintage fashion, the aged posters and magazines, the antique furniture, the oh-so-tempting typewriter… I’m salivating just thinking about it.

Here it is: the famed typewriter. I mean, look at it. It's begging me to type a novella.
I mean, look at it. It’s begging me to type a novella.

It’s a place filled with clothes hangers and memories: the time I hid behind the bookshelves and read from an old copy of Gulliver’s Travels (haven’t finished it yet), the time my roommate and I found an Audrey Hepburn-esque gown for her photo shoot, the time I promised myself I would start a pipe collection, the time I took frowned-upon photos of typewriters and displays. This little shop at the end of the stairs helps me to be whimsical for a few hours.

Athens Underground ignited my love of throw-backs. Although we live in a world that follows the latest trends, it’s incredibly refreshing to indulge in the used-to-have-been of the fashion world. And where else can I get flannels and billowy sweaters? Or worn books that make me feel like a hipster?

At Athens Underground, I feel like I’m far away enough from campus to regenerate. It’s not only my favorite place in Athens, but it’s also my escape.

 

 

 

Halloween costumes are serious investments for those attending the block party on Court Street

DSC00002Re-selling Halloween costumes is not a popular option for attendees of HallOUween. Plenty have bought their unique costumes (sometimes with future use in mind) and are planning on keeping them if not to use again, then at least for the memories.

 

Hannah, 24, bought a yellow jumpsuit from an adult website to complete her version of The Bride from the Kill Bill movies, but she has no plans to sell it, saying, “On naughtyfox.com, it was either this or an $80 display costume.”
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Chad, dressed as Indiana Jones, says he would consider selling his costume on eBay or Craigslist only if he had to.DSC00004

 

Garret says he’s never going to sell his WWII style bomber cap which he got from Athens Underground in “one of the best deals I’ve come across in a while.”DSC00007

 

For Jacob Solether, his Stormtrooper costume is going to continue being useful by the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and he plans on wearing it at baseball games. The only place he would ever consider selling it, however, would be at comic-con.

For many, dressing up for the block party on Halloween is a valuable investment that is not taken lightly. For these few, it’s one they’ve made for most of the foreseeable future.

Uncovering Court Street’s hidden treasures

Walking up Court Street can be an overwhelming experience even for those who live in Athens. While there’s a lot to look at, the best places are hiding just out of sight. These restaurants and stores are like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts. These unique places seem to appear only when specifically needed. Here’s a look at the places that can be missed on a casual stroll.

So let’s do this, let’s go on an adventure to find the Holy Grail of Court Street stores.

Skin Hooked 

The Sign for Skin Hooked at 8 North Court Street
The Sign for Skin Hooked at 8 North Court Street

This newly opened tattoo shop is at 8 North Court St. The actual shop is not visible from the street, but the sign is definitely on Court Street. The shop is actually in the alley behind Pita Pit. Do not feel uncomfortable walking down the short alleyway and then down a series of steps to get into this basement tattoo and piercing parlor. Also, be careful of the wind that can become fiercely powerful in the small space between brick buildings. Once the door is open, this spacious room will immediately bring comfort after the short, slightly sketchy walk away from Court Street.

Owner Shawn Hawks describes the location as the place “your mom tells you to avoid.” Hawks says the shop might be small, but it works. This is the first year Hawks has lived in Athens and it’s also Skin Hooked’s first year being open. He says he chose Athens because it is a hippie town and he wanted to be able to depend on walk-in customers from the university. Hawks brought his love of custom tattoos to Athens. He says he wants customers to have a good experience and leave with a smile.

The location is just off Court Street because the rent was lower than other places around Uptown Athens. He says an important part of his business is keeping prices low, which factored into his location decision. “The rent was low. We keep our overhead low and our prices down.”

There is only one thing he would change about the location, and that is the stairs. Any customer walking down the steps immediately grabs the handrail because they look perilous. Hawks says he cleans the stairs every day because the wind blows trash right into the store’s front door.

Even with the lack of visible storefront, 20-year veteran artist Hawks says getting customers to the store is not a problem. Hawks dedicates much of his budget to advertising to make up for lack of visibility. He has targeted his advertising to local college students by putting a coupon in this year’s Campus Special. Now students still come in with the coupon. Also news about the store has been passed on by word of mouth. Hawks says there is a lot of competition for the tattoo business in Athens, but he just wants customers to have a friendly experience.

Ski’s T-Shirts

The entrance to Ski's T-shirts and Collectibles on 55 N Court Street
The entrance to Ski’s Teases and Collectibles on 55 N Court Street

Ski’s Teases and Collectibles is at 55 N Court St. This shop is famous for its T-shirts with creative slogans that are unique to Athens. The shop is located across the street from BP. The only clue the shop exists is the open sign that lights up the window of a basement door. Only a few steps separates the street from a basement shop full of collectibles and hundreds of different shirts.

Ohio University alumni Jerry Ski has had businesses in Athens in the past selling collectibles and comic books but did not move into the basement location on Court Street until 2002. The unique shirts Ski sells became popular by accident. Customers found the shirts in boxes in the store when Ski moved to his current location. The customers then asked if they were for sale. Ski takes credit for coining the name “Harvard on the Hocking” that has now become synonymous with Ohio University. Many of the T-shirts feature logos of current and old Court Street businesses. He personally designs and creates all the T-shirts he sells.

When asked why he picked a basement on Court Street, Ski answered, “There’s no other real estate in town that’s affordable.”

Ski does have problems with the current location beneath Court Street. He says persistent flooding does not allow him to set out all his collectible merchandise. The reason T-shirts have been an integral part of his business is they are not affected as much by basement flooding.

He also does not advertise, relying entirely on word of mouth. Ski says he wants people to have a unique experience in his store. There are definitely a large amount of unique items. Sitting behind the counter are a few of the collectibles Ski is able to display. One is a poster of President Obama opening his shirt to reveal a giant “O” like Superman. He says some students go through four years of college without realizing there are stores on Court Street other than bars and fast food restaurants.

Ski says a key to surviving so long in Athens is “going with the flow of things.” A lot of students buy T-shirts at his store and many come back after they graduate.

Athens Underground

The entrance to Athens Underground at 90 N Court Street.
The entrance to Athens Underground at 90 N Court Street.

The last stop is also in a basement but this larger shop consists of a few small rooms filled to the brim with vintage clothing. Athens underground is located at 90 N Court St. The antique and vintage clothing store is across the street from Broney’s. The entrance is at the end of about 10 steep steps.

Here’s a warning to new customers: walking into this vintage clothing store might end in a sensory overload. The shop is full of costumes, clothing, records, jewelry and household items. There is no possible way to see everything in just one trip. Currently the biggest seller at the holiday time is the trend called Ugly Christmas Sweaters. Long racks full of sweaters sit at the front of the store attracting college students who wander in to find an outfit for their themed parties.

While sweaters take up the front of the store, the different rooms of Athens Underground are each divided into different categories. One room holds women’s clothing organized by style. Men’s clothing and a surprisingly large number of leather jackets take up another room. The most exciting room for many is the one full of vintage shoes.

Owner Barbara Stout grew up in Athens but left for a few years to join the vintage store scene in New York. Even she admits the storefront is not ideal, but all other locations available are too expensive.

She admits, “I’m hesitant myself to walk into places where you can’t see.” But once entering the store, customers see the large amount of interesting items available. Stout gets a lot of clothing directly from her connections in the city. She says, “I have a lot of new stuff from New York. I personally go and pick stuff out.”

Stout says it’s a struggle to get people to come into her store because no matter how hard she tries advertising does not seem to work. She uses a few different strategies like signs, Facebook and a display window in Court Street Coffee. Athens Underground has a strong Facebook page with nearly 5,000 likes. Since half of her customers are Internet-focused students, print advertising does not work well enough. She also has tried coupons but says the only time people use them is on Mom’s Weekend. Stout does say that like other retail owners, her most reliable form of advertisement is word of mouth.

It has been a struggle making it in a small town but Stout chalks up her success to stubbornness and perseverance. Stout says, “It’s not easy making a living from this town unless you’re selling beer.”

Let The Adventure Begin

Old or new, all these locally owned stores struggle to get past the lack of a visible storefront. Each is a treasure waiting to be discovered by visitors wanting to explore Athens or even students who have not taken the time to explore the center of culture for Ohio University life. Each store gives Athens the small town atmosphere that makes so many proud to call it home. Any adventurer will be sure to have memorable moments in each hidden gem.

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Tori Knueven is a student at Ohio University studying broadcast journalism. She has a passion for British pop culture, especially Harry Potter, Dr. Who and Sherlock. While in school, she is a resident assistant in James Hall and also a producer and reporter for WOUB News. Spring semester, she will be in Washington, D.C., for an internship with the Scripps Howard Foundation.