The Right Space

By Scott Pruden

Stepping up to the funky façade of Spaceboy Clothing in downtown Wilmington, it’s hard to imagine that the combination t-shirt/screen print shop and event space was ever not here.

This stretch of Market Street — once a row of empty or dilapidated storefronts — now plays host to some of the coolest attractions the city has to offer. Within a few blocks of the shop sit Bardea and Bardea Steak. There’s constant traffic in search of caffeination at either the neighboring Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.

Other busy spots –— restaurants Stitch House Brewery, Cavanaugh’s, Chelsea Tavern and live music venues The Queen and The Grand  add to the appeal. A few blocks down, The Quoin adds a splash of boutique hotel elegance that at one time only the Hotel du Pont could boast. Meanwhile, spots like Lou’s Jewelry and Pawn and Olympic Subs & Steaks serve as echoes from a previous age, continuing to thrive among the new arrivals.

And in the center of it all sits Spaceboy, which —while it can’t claim full responsibility for the vibrancy of these few blocks of Market — can certainly claim to have played a significant part in its blossoming to its current state.

But even as the bustle grows around its spot on the 700 block of Market Street, Spaceboy’s contribution to the neighborhood has also forced a change: With the sale of its building, the shop will move on to bring its creative spark to the LoMa district a half-dozen blocks south, perhaps igniting yet another Renaissance around it.

A Mutual Love of Design

David Sanchez and Noah Merenda, the two men behind Spaceboy, met as teenagers, both artistically inclined. Sanchez, who describes his mom as “the artsy parent,” had begun dabbling in graphic design and screen printing in high school, while Merenda leaned toward photography. Growing up in rural Maryland, he’d lived near one of the largest antique auction houses in the region and had developed a taste for the vintage and funky from his parents. 

“Both my parents were kind of auction-y people, so I spent a lot of my time at auctions —Wednesdays and Friday nights. And my mom was a crafter,” Merenda says. “She would do crafts and would sell at markets, so I kind of grew up with that.”

Once the two met, they connected quickly around shared interests, which included music, art and the urban environments in which both often thrived. One thing that they say was particularly attractive to them was the sort of retail shops they’d see in neighborhoods of cities like New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and while they lived together on Maryland Avenue just off Union Street, they found themselves admiring the small shops nearby.

Enter the internet. In 2008, the Spaceboy website launched with a fun mix of edgy and Delaware-centric t-shirt designs, finally putting the work of Sanchez and Merenda out to the world. The next year, the two opened their first brick-and-mortar location in Elsmere. 

While their focus has always been on graphic tees, in those early days Merenda maintained his ongoing gig as a photographer to help support the business. That emphasis on cultivating multiple revenue streams would come in handy as the enterprise grew.

While word spread about the friends’ cool designs, another pair of entrepreneurs were doing their own part to make New Castle County a more interesting place. 

In 2008, developers Chris and Rob Buccini of Buccini/Pollin Group launched a massive undertaking to help kick start the revitalization of downtown Wilmington, and the Market Street corridor, in particular. 

The two shelled out more than $170 million to buy nearly 30 properties between Fourth and Ninth streets, with nine buildings along the 800 block designated for mid- to high-end residential space with street-level retail.

Buccini/Pollin wasted little time putting its revitalization efforts in action. And when it came time to add an artistic edge to the neighborhood they were revitalizing, who do you think they called? That’s right — the boys from Spaceboy.

The Elsmere shop had already earned front-page attention from local arts and entertainment guide Spark when Sanchez and Merenda got a call from the developers inviting them to move to a space on Seventh Street just off Market.

“They brought us to Seventh Street just to kind of spawn something happening on that street, because there was nothing there,” Sanchez says. “We were like, ‘Yeah, you’re building a real-deal venue here and DCAD is here,’ and those two things kind of made us believe that we could help make change down here.”

That proximity to the Delaware College of Art and Design has, over the years, not only provided Spaceboy with a regular rotation of artists for their clothing, but also a reliable stream of employees, Sanchez says.  

A New Type of Business 

But succeeding in retail in this unique environment wasn’t just a matter of providing cool products to help draw younger residents to the shiny new Buccini/Pollin apartment buildings. It took creativity on top of what Sanchez and Merenda were doing with their clothing designs. 

“When I was traveling looking at boutiques, I saw that they always had some kind of thing in the background,” Merenda says. “They weren’t just making money from their wear. When I was looking
at Atlanta and different places, they would have a head shop in the back. And that would kind of spur income so they could survive. 
So, we’ve done the same thing with t-shirt printing.”

Indeed, what one sees upon walking into Spaceboy is just a taste of what the shop does these days. In addition to the store’s unique and Delaware-centric graphic tees, they offer custom screen printing and embroidering for private and corporate clients.

And the creativity didn’t just extend to clothing. The pair rode the excitement of their shop being downtown and branched off into not just providing cool threads, but also serving as an entertainment venue of its own.

“At first everyone was excited just to have something of [Spaceboy’s] kind here,” Merenda says. “We were doing shows in the back, and it was getting crazy at nights and on the weekends. We were a lot younger and had a lot more energy and time to put into the actual grind, but I think the response was great.”

Then came the national media highpoint for Spaceboy: On the April 17, 2010, episode of Saturday Night Live, Delaware local boy Ryan Phillippe introduced music guest Ke$ha wearing one of Spaceboy’s signature t-shirts emblazoned with an image of the First State and a banner with “Wilmington, Delaware” across the bottom. 

It was a testament not just to the appeal of the shop, but also to one famous Delawarean’s appreciation of what this local shop had to offer, Sanchez says. 

“It was crazy because it was right after we opened and he just happened to be in our shop to buy a shirt,” he says. “We had no idea he was going to wear it on SNL. And when it happened, I was like, ‘Well, I’m good!’”

Music and comedy acts in the shop followed.

“When I first met [Dave], he was in a band and at the time was doing DIY shows and putting on shows in event halls and churches and stuff like that,” Merenda says. “And we just always wanted to make it easier for the younger generation to have a voice. Most of our shows have been all ages. And we don’t expect to make a ton of money from events, but it’s what we like doing. And it gives people more options and a reason to come downtown.”

In 2018 the shop moved around the corner to 706 N. Market and into a building — appropriately enough — owned by DCAD, which gave them even more room to expand their retail and corporate printing operations. The space, which encompasses two entire storefronts, also allowed for more vintage clothing and collectable inventory and an even larger event space. Lately, Spaceboy has expanded beyond downtown Wilmington to add Spaceboy Ink printing “hubs” in Newark and Aston, Pa. The satellite locations serve as convenient spots for Spaceboy to serve its commercial printing customers. 

Unfortunately, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary halt for many businesses hit Spaceboy just like everyone else. But despite the shutdown and slow return to work, Sanchez and Merenda held the business together; finding themselves printing lots of masks; continuing with online sales; and eventually ramping back up their custom printing for business customers — many of them their neighbors.

“I was sitting in a neighborhood merchants meeting the other day and looking around at all the shirts we printed from all the different companies that were there,” Merenda says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve done all these people’s shirts. They’re customers.’”

And as longtime business owners on the block, they’ve also gained something of legendary status.

Sanchez recounts a recent conversation with someone at a neighborhood bar, when the conversation came around to what each person did for a living. “I was like, ‘Oh, you ever heard of Spaceboy?’ And everyone got really excited about it. It’s been a long road, but it’s definitely been rewarding. It’s been awesome.”

As for the next move for Spaceboy to its new location at 205 N. Market, the transition will be a gradual one over the month of August, with Sept. 1 set as the opening date for the new location.

The hope is that the LoMa district, with Spaceboy’s arrival, will undergo a rebrand into an arts district for which the shop will serve as the centerpiece, Merenda says. And as sad as they’ll be to leave their immediate neighbors, he said they look forward to a new adventure.

“BPG kinda helped us come here and helped us get a space,” says Merenda. “They saw the value in us and helped spur that. And you know, throughout that we’ve grown and gone different places, made different relationships and, but now we’re, after all that time, actually going back to kind of where it started — helping to spur the downtown. And with the waterfront and that connection, I’m looking forward to kind of seeing what different kind of business we do there.”