Interstate 25 casts its shadow over The Liberal Store's downtown location. Trains rumble by on railroad tracks only feet away.
The store is smack in the middle of Colorado Springs, yet hidden from view.
The same thing, the business owners might say, is true of the region's liberals.
Walking inside the small place, you find bumper stickers, buttons and refrigerator magnets expressing a range of peace-oriented messages and politically and socially progressive sentiments. Some are crude ("Bring Back $1.85 a Gallon Gas and Oral Sex in The Oval Office"), others humorous (a smiling President Bush with the message "Like a rock, only dumber"), and others subtle (a scene of wind turbines labeled "Intelligent design").
People laugh as they read the messages, but often stop short of buying anything, says Diann Webb, who supervises the store in space shared with the studio where she prints T-shirts.
"They say, "Oh, no, I can't put that sticker on my car,'" Webb says.
Gary Betchan, who runs the business with his wife Becky Hale, suggests a reluctance to express contrarian views is especially pronounced in Colorado Springs.
"People are terribly afraid that if they say they disagree, someone will reach down and smash them," he says.
In the early 1990s, Betchan and Hale got their start distributing fish symbols inscribed with the name "Darwin," a jab at Christians who believe Charles Darwin's account of human origins is contrary to beliefs they base on the Bible. The design plays off a popular Christian symbol showing the outline of a fish, an image some trace to early days of the faith when two people could use their feet to draw the pattern in the sand, a forebear of the secret handshake.
The local business grew as the couple added other stickers and products to their range of offerings. For years, Hale managed the business from the couple's basement. Betchan left his job as a Compaq network troubleshooter, and the couple now has an office in northeast Colorado Springs and the retail space at 218 W. Colorado Ave., in the Depot Arts District.
Most of their business comes online, through theliberalstore.com.
Peace symbols and stickers saying simply "Co-exist" or "Tolerance" have sold big. The store sells an "I have a dream 2008" mug showing a U.S. map with red and blue states. Add a hot drink, and a tide of blue washes over the nation.
It's mostly fun stuff, but the business side can be tricky. The owners try to make a lot of their wares, or to buy them locally; when they bought Darwin fish stickers from an outside vendor, they wound up entangled in a lawsuit about who came up with the design. A condition of the settlement, apparently, is not talking about it.
Betchan notes it would be cheaper and perhaps easier to get orders from overseas. He adds they could also do more business were they to broaden their product line to American flags or Christian symbols.
"Hell, everybody wants to be a Christian," he says. "It's a much bigger market."
But Betchan and Hale seem motivated more by what they sell than how much. And they seem convinced their liberal bumper stickers and simple slogans do make a difference, inviting conversations at times and helping create community.
"It's a way," Hale says, "of drawing the fish in the sand."
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