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The secret to selling cool

How three young guys with almost no retail experience created an uberhip sneaker boutique to rival those in New York, LA, and Tokyo.

By Kevin Alexander
November 21, 2010

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The kid in the Hollister shirt is lost. Well, as lost as one can be in the age of GPS-enabled phones. The teen knows he’s supposed to be at 6 Clearway Street in Boston. And he knows that’s right where he’s standing. But 6 Clearway Street, with its signless exterior and dusty windows lined with sun-weathered convenience-store goods, apparently doesn’t look anything like what he’s expecting. After several minutes staring into the windows, he clearly needs a lifeline. He opts to phone a friend. “I’m right here,” he says pleadingly into the cell, “and I still have no idea where it is.” As the kid listens, his eyes grow wider. “Wait,” he says, peering again doubtfully through the window. “You’re telling me this is the place?”

The decrepit store in question is Bodega, and, to answer our young friend’s question, this is indeed the place, if by “place” he means the most influential, cultishly revered, and only sneaker boutique/convenience store in the world. Four and a half years after opening its doors – a passage involving a secret entrance that shoppers must know or figure out themselves, which divides the shoe store from the bodega novelty in front – it has quietly vaulted from upstart shop to international player.

Among sneaker boutiques across the globe, the Back Bay store is “definitely in the top bracket,” says Simon Wood, editor and founder of Sneaker Freaker, an Australian magazine for sneaker enthusiasts that’s sold in 43 countries. And this isn’t just an underground sentiment. “They’re absolutely one of the top, top brands and retail experiences anywhere,” says Matt Ting, senior product line manager for Reebok’s Heritage shoe division. “When people from Reebok Europe or Asia come to Boston, it’s the first place they want to go.” Nate Jobe, a design director at Nike (who worked with Bodega while at Converse), agrees. “Those guys are definitely players on a global scale. They can stack up creatively against anyone else in the world.”

“Those guys” are Jay Gordon, 38, Oliver Mak, 31, and Dan Natola, 34 – the unlikely triumvirate of first-time, Boston-bred owners who’ve somehow managed to do the impossible: create a store in the Hub, selling sneakers from $60 to $300, that’s managed not only to flourish in the wake of a retail-assassinating recession but also to reach lofty status in a fashion sector traditionally dominated by New York, LA, and Tokyo. “Back [when Bodega opened] no one in the sneaker world cared about Boston,” says Jobe. “They made people care.”

In 2006, when Bodega appeared on the scene, sneaker collection hysteria was just starting to seep into the mainstream consciousness. That year, the HBO series Entourage focused an entire episode around its character Turtle’s attempts to snag a pair of custom Nike Air Force 1s from a real LA boutique. At the same time, a wave of retrophilia started to crest. Clothing companies like Homage (which reproduces vintage-esque T’s celebrating sports and pop culture from the ’70s through the ’90s) came up with unique ways to commercialize the interest in yesteryear. Meanwhile, a night-life craze best described as faux speak-easy (think obscured entrances and passwords, minus the illegal hooch) started with the openings of bars like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and Milk N Honey in New York. Suddenly it seemed like older members of Generation Y wanted to drink in the places their great-grandparents frequented in the ’20s while wearing the gear their parents bought them in the ’80s. And shoes were no different.

Though Nike and others had been rereleasing old models for years, it took awhile before people outside of the graffiti, hip-hop, skateboard, and basketball worlds started to wear and collect these sneakers. Most of these shoes fell into one of three categories: actual models of sneakers from another era, carefully preserved (often wrapped in plastic like baseball cards); re-creations of old sneakers, cleverly released in small numbers and featuring distinctive details (Michael Jordan’s original Air Jordan 1s, released in Carolina blue, for example); or collaborations, called “collabs,” in which small boutiques or individual artists or designers teamed with shoe companies to create their own unique shoe. As the thirst for these shoes rose, the quest for “boutique” or “limited-edition” clothing also took off. “The little boutiques just blew up,” says Nike’s Jobe, of 2006. “And everyone, from Nike and Adidas on down, started to pay attention. It was a fantastic time to get noticed, if you knew what you were doing.” In other words, the table was set for a place like Bodega.

“Yeah, in theory,” says Natola, laughing. “Except we didn’t really know what we were doing.”

* * *

Bodega’s origin story is hazy and features slight jumps in logic, though essentially it goes like this: Jay Gordon and Oliver Mak worked together at an online clothing store and always joked about starting their own place, or at least a clothing line. The idea simmered until Mak, who knew Dan Natola through mutual friends, introduced him to Gordon. The three instantly hit it off. “We were all doing industry-related stuff in marketing or advertising, and we all seemed to have the same sense of humor,” Natola says. Each of them also brought a different skill set. “Jay’s great at networking and literally knows everyone in Boston, Oliver is extremely creative and still in touch with the scene and what’s relevant, and I’ve always been interested in the design side and heading up special projects.”

They began earnestly searching for a space in 2005, but the process was not altogether smooth. “This was the 21st location we looked at,” Gordon says, referring to 6 Clearway, off Mass. Ave., not far from Berklee College of Music. “Before us, the place was a paint-your-own-furniture store, so it wasn’t exactly a natural transition. But we wanted to be close to Newbury and close to public trans, since it was vital to us that not only people from BU and BC be able to get here, but also Dorchester and Roxbury.”

Attracting the entire spectrum of Boston’s ethnic makeup was important, Gordon says. “Growing up in Boston, it was a pretty segregated city,” he says. “Everyone had their neighborhood, and they kind of stuck to it, and that was just how it was. But we really tried to appeal to all sides. And now, seeing people coming in from Southie and from Roxbury and from Allston and really all over, we feel very lucky to pull from all these places.”

And not just in the city. “Tons of people come in from the North and South Shore and Worcester and Springfield. And for [new shoe] releases, we’ll get guys driving from Montreal and NYC.” He pauses. “We also have a weird number of fans in London and Tokyo.”

Before opening, the three owners agreed they would be nice to the customers. This may seem like common sense in retail, but in the world of hip sneakers, it’s actually rare. “I find them to be extremely humble,” says Ting. “And at this point, they don’t necessarily need to be. But when kids go in there and shop, they’re always super helpful and knowledgeable, whereas a lot of guys in NYC have this ‘cool guy’ attitude and no customer service.”

Being approachable and friendly are keys to their success, but much of the allure of a first trip to Bodega comes from the fact that the store is, in one sense, not really accessible at all. The secret entrance, which takes you from the functioning corner storefront (available for purchase: cans of soda, rice cookers, and pickled eggs) to the sneaker/gear side, has been a source of entertainment, mystery, and frustration for newcomers. “It infuriated my father that people would be looking for the store and I’d be out front on my phone and wouldn’t tell them where it is,” Gordon says. “But I knew that eventually they’d find it, and when they did, it would mean so much more for them to find it on their own.”

* * *

Gimmicky or not, Bodega grew strictly by word of mouth. “We spent zero dollars marketing, advertising, anything,” Gordon says. But in the counterintuitive, backward world of cool, a nonexistent campaign is actually the strongest. Influential underground blogs like Hypebeast wrote about it. The head of Nike New England came (originally to question where they’d gotten the rare Nike shoes they were carrying) and was so impressed that he ended up giving them a deal to carry limited-edition releases. Typically, it takes several years for a store to secure an account like that. Bodega did it in two months. By the end of its second year, Bodega had attained Tier Zero status – essentially the Valhalla of shoedom, a designation bestowed by Nike (only six other US stores have it) that provides exclusive access and first looks at the company’s rarest shoes.

Bodega caught another big break when, early on, the influential basketball magazine Dime ran a piece ranking the store as the third best sneaker boutique in the country. Immediately, Dime’s comment section was rife with claims of blasphemy about this random upstart in, of all places, Boston, but the store was now in the conversation. “That was enormous,” Gordon says. “After that, we started getting good product from Adidas and from Nike and moving up the ladder. It allowed us to bring in stuff that Boston hadn’t seen.”

Bringing in product was one thing, but creating it was another. Collabs with shoe companies are one of the most important components in building a successful and sustainable business. Essentially, it works like this: A boutique will have an idea for a shoe, or a shoe company will want to work with a particular boutique whose clientele it’s trying to attract. Designers from, say, Lacoste and Bodega will come together, agree on a concept (type of shoe, theme, packaging, marketing, etc.), and then both parties will submit specific ideas. That’s when the project manager from the shoe company comes in and explains budgets, limitations, and other realities. The designers adjust until an idea works both aesthetically and financially. Then the shoe goes into production and a release date is set – it’s hoped to huge buzz – after pictures of the prototype are tactfully leaked to sneaker blogs.

Bodega’s first collab was with Converse. The inspiration for the shoe was something that could be found in a real bodega: beef jerky. They meshed stylish lumberjack (red and black buffalo-check lining) with the idea of beef (roughly tumbled leather outer). And in what would become their signature move, the packaging was as cool as the shoes themselves – they came not in a box, but in a resealable beef jerky bag, with a lumberjack hat to match. Blogs went nuts. Upon release, the shoe sold out almost instantly.

From 2007 to 2008, Bodega collaborated on no fewer than seven projects, including a redesign of Reebok’s Pump Omni Lite (which Dee Brown famously inflated in his 1991 NBA dunk contest title), themed after the infamous Fung Wah Chinatown bus line (complete with an overnight bag filled with essentials for a one-day trip to New York); a Puma Sky high-top based on Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy comic strip, detailed with a bullet-riddled sock liner and hidden messages that, if decoded, gave you clues about how to acquire an even more limited-edition Grey Spy (only 20 pairs available worldwide); and an Adidas ZX running shoe, for which they were flown to Adidas headquarters in Germany, along with the company’s 21 other Consortium retailers (an elite group of innovators, akin to Nike’s Tier Zero), to design a shoe that would release with all the others worldwide. It was a nearly unbeatable period of productivity and acclaim. “If eBay is any kind of litmus test,” says Reebok’s Ting, “you can look at almost all of these collabs and they’re still fielding between $500 and $1,000 each. To have done all these projects, and to see them all still be viable and sought after, it’s almost unthinkable.”

Despite the success, the whole ride hasn’t been without hiccups. “For a long time,” says Natola, “we had no idea how much product to order, because we had no historical data. And we wouldn’t have even known what historical data was.” There was a scene in MTV’s junior-bridezilla show Sweet Sixteen that was filmed in the store and that no one wants to remember. And their Fourth Wall Project, an art gallery they created out of an old gas station on Brookline Avenue in the Fenway, was dormant for a long time until they turned it into one of the most vibrant spaces in the city. Nonetheless, in terms of profitability, each year has been better than the previous one. “We’re in very, very good shape,” Gordon says coyly.

There are no plans to replicate Bodegas across the country. They’re working on a design for a shoe for Saucony to release in Japan, without the Bodega label, a testament to how far they’ve come. “The collabs day has passed,” Jobe says. “It’s now really just about designing a product that can stand up by itself, without having to put your name on it. And they’re doing that.”

Twenty minutes or so after his tentative entrance, the kid in the Hollister shirt leaves 6 Clearway Street. He carries no bag, no proof of entrance, other than a face alight with the sort of smug confidence that comes from insider knowledge. Perhaps he’s envisioning his own phone conversation with a frazzled friend, a time in the future when he can coolly sit back and exclaim, “Wait, you’re telling me you don’t know how to get into Bodega?”

Kevin Alexander is a senior editor at Thrillist.com and owns an embarrassing amount of sneakers. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • November 21, 2010 cover
  • Nov. 21, 2010 cover