Crawford’s Gift Shop backs the black and gold sports teams made famous in Pittsburgh.

March 15, 2024

For those who bleed black and gold, a visit to Crawford’s Gift Shop — aka Black & Gold Headquarters — might feel like heaven. At least that’s what Manager John Crawford regularly hears from die-hard Steelers fans upon entering the 3,500-square-foot store.

“For the real Pittsburgh fans, it’s normally the most iconic thing they say when they come in the front door,” notes Crawford, whose family has owned the Breezewood, Pennsylvania, business since 1972. “It’s just like Pittsburgh heaven. Because we try to hit them with that right inside the door — just massive black and gold covering the walls.”

Although the color duo is most commonly associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s also the palette of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates and the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins. And in Crawford’s Gift Shop, the walls drip with liquid gold and onyx black jerseys, flags, mobiles, Terrible Towels, banners, shirts, hoodies, signs and anything else that will stick to slat-board.

But it didn’t begin as a shrine to all-things Pittsburgh sports fans, and it’s certainly not where it’s ending up. To really get a feel for the present-day store, one would have to bump along through time and its evolution from a department store, to a taxidermy display and gift shop, to a general souvenir shop until it finally found its calling in 2006.

Far-reaching fans

The Crawfords didn’t think much of the small corner they dedicated to Steelers gear at the time, as most were capitalizing on a good run led by Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 23-year-old became the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl that year and still holds the title today, according to NBC Sports.

Travel mugs are popular since the majority of customers hail from Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
Photos: James J. Grassi

“When the season ended, we thought we’ll have to put the merchandise on sale and clear it out, but people kept coming in and asking, ‘Well, you have this can you also get that?’ And it wasn’t just during football season that they were interested. They were interested all the time.”

So little by little, the corner dedicated to sports slowly crept across the laminate floor and up the 14-foot walls until it swallowed every square inch of the store.

Soon, Crawford began noticing that Steelers fandom didn’t end at the city limits. In fact, the majority of the store’s clientele hails from Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

“They’re originally from Western Pennsylvania, so they have those roots with a love of the Pittsburgh sports teams — especially the Steelers,” he says. “And they’ve moved down there for jobs, but they still come home to visit family back in Pittsburgh area.”

And when they do, they stop in to Crawford’s Gift Shop to pick up their favorites, such as keychains, lanyards, drinkware, shot glasses, magnets, rugs, signs, apparel and travel mugs, which is one of the top sellers for the store given their traveling customers. He adds that blankets seem to be a popular item lately, too.

But hands down, apparel accounts for the largest portion of the store’s sales, Crawford asserts.

“That is definitely the biggest because of the way the economy is with prices continuing to escalate, so unfortunately, clothing is also escalating,” he points out. “So, when you do sell those products, it definitely generates a lot of revenue.”

Name brands form a niche

Crawford relies on the likes of New Era Cap Co. for hats and apparel, Mitchell & Ness for jerseys, apparel and throwback-inspired wares, and Fanatics for licensed apparel such as the popular T.J. Watt jersey — a fan favorite and a top-seller.

A real game changer for the industry, Crawford notes, is when vendors like Antigua Apparel and G-III Sports began designing more fashionable apparel specifically for men and women, like V-necks and polo shirts.

Among the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins products, the Steelers merchandise has the highest demand.

“It used to be in the souvenir world if you wanted a T-shirt, there wasn’t really men’s or ladies, you just kind of bought a small if you were a lady or an extra-large for a man,” he explains. “These companies have taken it into more fashionable clothing directly for ladies and directly for men and that was what really launched the niche. It went from just a unisex business to being totally specialized.”

He adds the additional options make it easier for avid fans to incorporate their favorites teams into social and business settings while still dressing appropriately for the occasion.

“They took it from pro shops and into the mainstream,” he says. “With those same themes, but a more upscale, nicer item, you could wear your favorite team clothing on a Friday to work, but you would still be very dressy. And look very nice.”

But not everything in the store is as highbrow. There’s still always room for goofy souvenirs and funny gags, like the Steelers hat with long, black hair cascading down the back — a tribute to legendary Safety Troy Polamalu, who was known for his long, dark locks.

“People like to put that on and just have fun with it with the long, black hair and pretending they’re Troy,” Crawford says with a laugh.

And perhaps none are as ear-catching as the squeezy chicken — a pet toy in the shape of a smiling chicken wearing a Steelers jersey.

“It makes a crazy noise when you squeeze it,” Crawford explains. “It’s been very popular, especially with kids. I can’t imagine going in a car and listening to that, but it’s a good seller.”

Continuing to grow

The store is not confined by square footage, however. In fact, Crawford is setting his sights on expanding the store’s reach by offering merchandise from all 32 NFL teams.

He adds that their location in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, makes the store uniquely positioned to appeal to more than just one demographic. The area serves as a hub for Midwesterners jumping on Interstate 70 to continue traveling to Washington, D.C., and other East Coast destinations.

“You get people from all over the country and actually internationally that are going through here for one reason or another,” he says. “So, when they stop, they aren’t necessarily interested in just Pittsburgh things; they might have family or themselves that likes another team. And so that’s the transition we’re in now.”

Family favorites

But it’s not just internationally where Crawford sees a division in where fans pledge their loyalty. Among his own family, he and his wife, Christi, and son, J.J., are among the die-hard Pittsburgh fans while middle son, Carey, took to the New England Patriots and youngest son, Tristan, prefers the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Crawford said it showed him that a family divided by teams could still be united in their love of sports.

While the youngest two might waver in their football team preferences, Crawford says there is no shortage of people who are proud to be a part of Steeler Nation.

He adds that the fiercely loyal fan base is what sets the store apart from others who may try to emulate the success of Crawford’s Gift Shop in a different city.

“It’s really unique with us and I don’t know how it would work out with other areas. As far as having that type of loyalty and draw like Pittsburgh, they’re just dedicated 365 days a year,” he stresses. “We can be in the middle of Penguin playoff season and day in day out, we’re still selling a much higher percentage of Steelers merchandise because they’re just really loyal fans. I don’t know that it’d be that easy to replicate. It kind of takes a special circumstance.”