DES MOINES — You wouldn’t necessarily guess when you walk into this sleepy little shop downtown, a bell jingling cheerily against the glass, that it’s a player in the great political circus unfolding here.
Hung on walls and on the shelves, you’ll find a smattering of auto parts — touch-up paint, wheel covers — but the real business at A-D Distributing is flags, as in Old Glory. Everything from little ones on sticks to big, billowing banners. And guess what all the presidential campaigns around these parts need for stages and stand-outs and to generally surround themselves with American greatness?
Most of the time, Jane and Tony Carberry hawk their American flags to a rather predictable collection of clients: schools, local car dealerships, and everyday residents hoping to bring a little patriotic pop to their front porches. But once every four years their shop is inundated with requests as the candidates descend and the caucuses approach.
“It’s kind of like Christmas,” says Jane Carberry, the woman behind the counter, who, along with her son Tony, runs the place.
The Carberrys have grown accustomed to fielding the frantic calls of campaign representatives and event-staging professionals in search of that all-important political prop.
One day not long ago, Jane got an after-hours call from a campaign representative for Joe Biden, who said that the former vice president was in need of a large American flag for an upcoming rally — and quickly. So her son, who was out at the movies with his wife, headed to the shop at 10 p.m. to unlock the store and sell the guy a flag.
Another time, years ago, staffers from a Barack Obama campaign field office — which had set up shop a few blocks from the Carberrys’ shop on East Grand Avenue — walked over and purchased a variety of flags, as well as a 20-foot-tall metal flagpole.
“Two guys came in and just carried it out,” says Jane.
“I’m not even sure why,” adds Tony. “No idea what they used that for.”
Opened in 1958 by Jane’s father-in-law, the Carberrys’ shop began as an auto supply retailer, selling products to area car dealerships. But many dealerships, they realized, had flagpoles, which require flags, and at some point, Jane says, it just made sense to start selling flags, too.
Today, the Carberrys offer just about every kind of flag imaginable.
They sell flags folded neatly into boxes, or adorned with gold fringe, and flags with bases festooned with gold-plated eagles. They sell a New England Patriots flag, although it does not tend to be too popular in these parts, Tony explains. For a long time, they sold a lot of pennant flags — the little multicolored string of pennants that car dealerships hang outside their lots to indicate a sale – but then, back in the ’80s, a local city councilor got to thinking that they were an eyesore, and so she helped enact a city ordinance to ban them.
“But there’s no ordinance against American flags,” says Tony.
Indeed, the American flag has been big business for the Carberrys, who estimate that flag sales now make up about 60 percent of their business.
Over the years, Jane and Tony — whose passion for flags is such that he decorates his text messages with the American flag emoji — have learned to anticipate the needs of their various political clients. Some candidates prefer smaller flags, others large ones. Nylon flags might work well on your front porch, where the sun’s reflection can create a nice, glossy sheen — but they are decidedly bad for political events, and so campaign staffers tend to spring for the pricier, but more camera-friendly, polyester flags.
Even so, he is still occasionally surprised to find just how sizable a presidential candidate’s appetite for American flags can be.
When representatives for one campaign called ahead of the 2016 election to say they were in need of a lot of flags, for instance, Tony stocked even more than usual.
“We made sure we had a lot,” he says. “We just weren’t expecting them to take every flag from the shelf.”