1995 and 1997 were pivotal years in Chris Norris' business. That's when Oklahoma State University sports made it to the NCAA Final Four basketball championships and Alamo Bowl, respectively.
“It was something we hadn't been through, so we were unprepared,” said Norris, who sells OSU merchandise from Chris' University Spirit, 244 S Knoblock, in Stillwater, a store he's owned since 1986.
For the '95 Final Four, Norris said he was so conservative that he sold $100,000, when it should have been $150,000.
“And at the '97 Alamo Bowl, we were finally back,” Norris, an '85 OSU alum, said. “We hadn't been to a bowl game since '88.”
More recently, the OSU Cowboys have put Stillwater on the national map, from another 2004 Final Four showing to the 2010 Alamo Bowl and 2011 Big 12 football championship.
“Today, we have a lot better handle on sales,” Norris said. “Prideful fans want to strut their shirts, and come in to buy a T-shirt and walk out with a shirt, cap and more,” he said. “We do in one day what we did in an hour on game days in the early '90s.”
Open seven days a week, Chris' University Spirit employs 27, he said, and has $3 million in annual sales, up from $350,000 its first year.
Norris, 49, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his retail roots, OSU heritage, quick road to marriage, his daughter who, ironically, was a Sooner softball star, and more. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: I grew up in Idabel, where my dad owned and operated a department store.
I worked there every summer and Christmas vacation until I graduated college, starting with sweeping the floors at age 10. A former high school English teacher, my mom stayed home with me and my sister, who's four years younger and now a California-based actress (Kimberly Norris Guerrero, whose credits include “Grey's Anatomy,” “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld” and worldwide appearances, including on Broadway, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County”).
I loved growing up in Idabel. My graduating class of 156 was small enough that I could do everything. In our family, sports were an elective, but the arts were not — and it's the same now with my own family. I started taking piano when I was 6, played coronet in the school band, was in “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and got to tour Europe in 1981 as part of the Oklahoma Show Choir. I also ran track and played quarterback on the football team.
Q: And college?
A: I played football (defensive back) for the University of Wyoming in Laramie, but after a year, transferred to OSU. I'd had shoulder surgery, didn't think I was going to get to play a lot, and knew I didn't aspire to coaching. Meanwhile, I'd grown up a Cowboy fan. My family had held season football tickets since 1972.
OSU is the alma mater of both my parents, who met their senior years here. My mother, the late Kay Baum Norris, graduated a Top Ten Senior Woman and was instrumental in the opening of Heritage Hall sports museum in the Gallagher-Iba Arena in the fall of 2001.
Q: Can you tell us about your early professional career, and what led you to open your store?
A: Upon graduation, I took a job with Wichita-based Koch Industries, where I helped schedule their refined products on barges and ships. I liked the job, but didn't care for living in Wichita so — four months into my second year with Koch — I jumped at the opportunity to open a store in Stillwater. My father, Bob Norris, who now lives in Stillwater, helped by cosigning on my initial note.
Originally called Balfour House, the store then specialized in Greek novelties and screen-printing, and was comprised of just 1,800 square feet of leased space. But in ‘91, with the overturning of two stores north of us, we had the opportunity to expand into, and within months, buy that space, and grow into the Oklahoma State merchandise side of the business.
Today, we own outright 5,000 square feet of floor space, plus an adjoining 2,500-square-foot printing warehouse, where our in-house graphic artists can design unique and custom clothing.
Q: What's your most popular merchandise?
A: Women's wear has really taken off over the past five years. Ladies used to wear the same T-shirts as guys. But now they can choose from V-neck tees, form-fitting tees, burnt-out tees and more.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: We were set up on a blind date by her uncle, who's a family friend here in Stillwater. Julie grew up in Watonga, graduated from Southwestern, and, when we met, owned and operated a Sears store in Cushing. We met on April 14 and married seven weeks later in Vegas. We recently celebrated our 23rd anniversary.
Q: A fifth-year senior at the University of Oklahoma, your daughter Katie, played catcher and later designated hitter for the University of Oklahoma's prizewinning softball team. Have you caught any flak from customers and fans?
A: I fielded plenty of criticism, especially on the Internet, where people can remain largely anonymous. But I'm an OSU guy. I don't root for OU when we play them. I'm happy for Katie. She made the correct decision for her, and was treated great by OU.
Actually, it's nice to have a Sooner in the family. It makes for some interesting conversations.