29 years in, Campus Gear owner David Haghnaji continues to give it his all


Madison Smith/Daily Senior Staffer

David Haghnaji offers a variety of merchandise at his Campus Gear stores, including Northwestern apparel and sports gear.

Clare Zhang, Reporter

As an undergraduate student at University of Illinois Chicago, David Haghnaji would play in poker tournaments all weekend. Other players took breaks, but he trained himself to stay up from Friday evening to Sunday morning.

That commitment is the reason behind Haghnaji’s success, Campus Gear retail associate Ken Mick said.

“He’s taken that ability and applied it to the rest of his life,” Mick said.

Now, 63-year-old Haghnaji dedicates more than 16 hours a day to managing Campus Gear, a downtown Evanston store with two other branches. The shop is well-known for its narrow aisles overflowing with purple merchandise and Northwestern “N”s.

Campus Gear’s ceiling-high shelves include everything from Northwestern Mom and Dad gear to teddy bears in purple shirts to NU-Arizona State hats. Haghnaji said he buys items in several styles and colors to provide customers with options.

“My workers, everybody blames me because they say it’s hard to keep track (of everything),” Haghnaji said. “But I like offering variety.”

When Haghnaji came to the U.S. in 1976, he didn’t intend to go into business. His goal was to get a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, then return to his hometown in Iran to teach at the University of Tabriz. But by the time he finished his degree at University of Illinois Chicago, Iran had undergone a revolution. His parents said it would be safer for him to stay in the U.S.

Haghnaji went on to receive a master’s degree and a Ph.D., then looked for teaching jobs in the U.S. Because none offered the salary he was hoping for, he changed plans.

Pivoting away from his engineering experience, Haghnaji and his cousin opened a boutique together in Carbondale. They made a couple of wrong moves, Haghnaji said, and his savings were gone within the first year. But they pushed on.

“You have to put your 100% into business in order to make it work,” Haghnaji said. “Once this becomes a secondary thing, it means that it’s going to fail.”

Haghnaji and his cousin then found a market among college students in the area who wanted Greek life merchandise and saw their opportunity. They opened another successful store in Wisconsin, this time focusing on college gear and Greek letters. Ultimately, though, Haghnaji left the store and started Campus Gear on his own.

In the 29 years since, Haghnaji has pursued opportunities to open about 10 college gear stores in the Northeast and Midwest. Campus Gear’s three Evanston locations have stood the test of time, which Haghnaji’s employees feel is largely due to their employer’s extremely hands-on work habits.

“I’m a workaholic as well, but not as much as him,” Campus Gear manager Steve Mirzakhail said. “I was like, what do you have me here for?”

This year’s booming business is making up for losses during the pandemic, Haghnaji said, during which he used up his life savings and borrowed as much as he could in order to keep the store open.

Despite hardships over the past year, Mirzakhail said he has never seen Haghnaji lose his temper, saying his employer stresses the importance of patience.

Mick said Haghnaji is generous with his employees, frequently treating them to lunch and checking in with them. He bought Chinese food for everyone after a busy shift in the store during this year’s Homecoming weekend.

Haghnaji said he enjoys campus events such as Homecoming, both for the business they bring and the people behind the purchases. Over the years, he’s witnessed multiple generations of NU students passing through the school.

“You see somebody come in … and he says, ‘I used to come to your store all the time,’” Haghnaji said. “And now he’s bringing his son to school.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @clarezhang_

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