“We did not go into this business to be rich. We will never be rich doing what we’re doing.” Jeff and Randy Vines, St. Louis-natives, identical twin brothers, and partnered proprietors of STL-Style, profess this truth with a kind of excitement that wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t know them. Making money is not why they do what they do. Their quirky corner t-shirt shop on Cherokee Street boasts brightly colored merchandise in the windows and a handwritten sign that says, “St. Louis T-shirts! Pick your color, size, and design.”
The Vines brothers, a nickname that has followed them around since high school, have built an entire business around St. Louis City pride. Their shirt designs feature classic St. Louis landmarks, icons, and slogans such as “Where’d You Go to High School?” “Highway Farty,” and “Show Me the Mullet,” which lovingly poke fun at the citywide inside jokes we’ve developed, and would immediately register only to a native.
It fits right in with the general business strategy you’ll find on Cherokee Street. “We’re not following a mold or anything. We’re just winging it. That’s our personality; you can see it from the mess on our desk there,” says Jeff, motioning towards a counter covered in papers, brown bags, t-shirts, laptops, and merchandise. A 2011 headline from The Onion sums it up perfectly: A Variety of Unsustainable Business Models Make Up Extremely Hip Neighborhood. “We were like, ‘that’s Cherokee Street.’”
“It’s not just t-shirts. It’s really anything you can put a logo on. We’ve done everything from beer glasses to condom wrappers,” says Jeff. With their ability to adapt, STL-Style has exploded. “Someone came in last year and said they saw our ‘Meet Me in St. Louis, bitch,’ shirt in Tanzania. I think that’s the greatest measure of success, is how far it has spread.” One of their favorite elements of the shop is a map of the United States, accompanied by a set of pins where visitors can mark their hometowns. It celebrates one of those fixed variables in life, things that everyone has: everyone has a mom, everyone has a dad, everyone has a body, and everyone has a hometown. “We really need a world map,” says Jeff. “Obviously, St. Louis’ reach goes far beyond our metro area,” he says, motioning across it. Visitors have come from all over the country and all over the world, from across the street to across the Atlantic ocean.
They’re inspired by the coarse, textural edge of the streets here, the rhythmic swagger of its people, the collaboration of the community, and its raw beauty. “We like the grit. We like being a little bit out of the comfort zone of suburbanites and tourists,” says Jeff. They look back on their high school days and remember the conception of Cherokee, the place where all of the suburban kids would go to buy bongs. “It was like the big, scary city where your parents didn’t want you to go. It’s still contained that sense of danger,” says Randy. Since then, the area has transformed into a burgeoning business district where artists, entrepreneurs, writers, innovators, bohemians, and visionaries have taken refuge.
“It’s kind of like Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, with some whores and crack heads mixed in,” says Jeff.
“Yeah, it’s definitely not Kansas,” says Randy.
Since moving into their Cherokee Street location, Randy and Jeff’s business has grown exponentially, from printing shirts on their friend’s kitchen table to a full-blown business. “If you try and fail, you’re not necessarily homeless. You can afford to do that here. You can afford to screw up,” says Randy.
In the beginning, making money off of printing their shirts was the last thing they thought they’d be doing. But when they wore the shirts they printed, friends, neighbors, and random people on the street would ask where they’d purchased them. They were unknowingly giving their business a test-run, and saw a viable audience for their product.
They continued printing shirts, both still with full-time jobs, and orders started pouring in. Displaced St. Louisans in other cities started ordering shirts, and word began to spread across the country. At the time, Jeff was working full-time as a sales representative at a bowling shirt company, and had a few friends from the company helping with STL-Style on the weekends. His boss eventually caught wind of their new business venture, and called it a conflict of interest.
He called Jeff and a few other employees into his office, and fired them all on the spot. “They called us into the office and said, ‘We know you guys got a little store now. You’re gone,” Jeff recalls. But both Jeff and Randy are of the make-lemonade-from-lemons school of thought. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us,” says Jeff. “It made us take [STL-Style] to the next level.”
Until then, the business had been a strictly part-time venture, but it needed both brothers at the helm to have a fighting chance at sustaining itself. Jeff feverishly devoted himself to getting STL-Style off the ground, while plotting how to generate enough revenue so that Randy could quit his job and join him. It happened six months later. “At that point, it was still a big risk,” says Jeff. “Losing his benefits and all that…it was a big risk,” he emphatically repeats.
While there was little margin for error, and there are always errors in the initial phases of starting a business, both Randy and Jeff were propelled by a desire to stoke that fiery hometown pride. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who popularized “The Show-Me State,” said “frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me,” he said. For the Vines, this was their mission: to show St. Louis, Missouri, and the country the greatness that exists here, in a way that didn’t require lots of money or flashy embellishments. This was, and still is, a non-negotiable for them.
Then in 2008, they received a call from the New York Times, who praised Jeff and Randy for their novel method of civic revitalization. Their approach didn’t require millions of dollars for reconstruction or rebuilding projects, but focused more on building up one of the greatest weapons against urban devastation: urban pride. The Times flew a reporter to St. Louis, who spent all day with them in the shop. They remember getting a call from their sister, who lives in New York, and opened the front page of the Sunday Times to see a full-color photo of her brothers and an article about STL-Style. Since then, the victories have continued to come.
The discussions they’ve started have helped others see the city through their eyes. St. Louis was once, and still is, a great city. “The remnants of that are all around us,” says Jeff. “Just look at an average block of housing here. That would be like a prized historic district in Atlanta or something, and its just normal here. We’re just surrounded by it. We don’t even know what to do with it.” The words come out with a familiarity he’s achieved by talking about this for hours upon end. But each phrase is punctuated with the same emphatic passion that was there the first time.
They also epitomize mixing business with family. “We’ve been partners in crime since before birth,” they tell me. In the most literal sense, this is true.
“What’s it like working together?” I ask them.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” says Jeff. There’s a kind of intimacy between them that’s probably the closest a human being could come to getting inside someone else’s head. They’re bonded in a way that’s different from everyone else.
“Is the whole twin telepathy thing real?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Randy.
“We really are on the same wavelength with most things,” says Jeff. “One time I called Jeff and I said, “’Tell me what song is on my mind right now.’ It was some random Lionel Richie song from the eighties, and he guessed it,” says Randy. Incidents like this have become commonplace.
On the outside, they aren’t competitive with one another. Rather, one begins where the other leaves off. But there’s a quiet intensity between them, almost like electricity, which will happen when you’ve gone through life constantly being compared to another person.
“How else are you guys different?” I ask.
“I’ve always been a little more artistic,” says Jeff. His art teacher in high school saw his talent, and pushed him to go to art school.
“She even said I was better than him,” says Jeff, playfully prodding at Randy.
“I’m a better writer though,” he counters.
“Ok, fine,” says Jeff with a laugh.
Being an extension of another human being has also affected their relationships. “It’s really hard for a girl to get used to how close we are. We call each other 20 times a day usually, just to talk about nothing. And it’s hard for our significant others to get used to that,” says Jeff.
“Sometimes we’re too close for comfort,” says Randy. “Even on stupid things. If I woke up one day and had a really bad sore throat, I wouldn’t want to tell him because he’d worry about it. And ask me all day, ‘Hows your throat? Is your throat better? Take some Tylenol.’ I don’t need that,” says Randy.
But over the years, they’ve carved out their own unique spaces for themselves in the world, apart from each other. They’re just Jeff and Randy. They also have their own families. “He’s got a baby girl and a wife,” says Randy, motioning to Jeff. “I’m divorced, but I have a three year-old son.”
Rather than looking at Randy, I look over at Jeff. They don’t vicariously live through each other at all. Each one has a real, vivid connection to the experiences of the other, a strange, wonderful, painful phenomenon. It’s an intensely emotional, saturated human experience. One has a sore throat, they both have a sore throat. One gets divorced, they both get divorced. They trust life and where it leads them, even if it’s toward things that are painful.
It’s the same attitude his brother had about getting fired. They’ve also been here long enough to witness the apologetic attitude that used to come with living here. Now, its on the way out. “By and large, I think that whole sentiment is shifting. It’s been shifting for 15 years…There’s such a pride in the city,” says Randy. “Fierce hometown pride,” he murmurs.
“The ones who grow up in the suburbs, leave for college, and don’t really know the city beyond an occasional ball game…that’s really detrimental to our image because they’re telling their friends, ‘St. Louis sucks and it’s boring,’ but really they have no concept of what the city is all about. They don’t even know Cherokee exists,” says Jeff. Thankfully, that toxic pandemic is on its way out. And thank God for it–we will not have that shit around here.
They love talking to the people who walk in, people who love St. Louis. They come from all walks of life. “People in the city, they just have a different swagger. There’s just an edge to them,” says Randy. Randy and Jeff thrive off of those broken, jagged pieces that haven’t been smoothed over. “You have to be authentic. People have to believe you and trust you, and understand that you stand for more than turning a quick buck,” says Jeff. Randy picks up where he leaves off. “We’re really the anti-corporate approach. We do it because it’s in our hearts, as cheesy as that sounds.”
For more information about STL-Style, visit www.stl-style.com.