Streetwear Success Stories: Bodega’s Jay Gordon

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Jay Gordon in Bodega’s Los Angeles store / Jace Lumley

If you’ve ever stepped inside Bodega in Boston you know that it feels more like a clubhouse than a clothing store. It’s disguised as a literal bodega on the outside, and the staff make you feel more like a friend than a customer once you’re in. There’s good music, cheap souvenirs, weird pop-ups and art projects to take in. Hanging out is always encouraged, whether during store hours or at one of Bodega’s regular parties. It’s retail at its most experiential and fun, which probably explains why after 12 years in business, co-founders Jay Gordon, Oliver Mak and Dan Natola are still selling sneakers—plenty of them.

In true Bodega fashion, Jay Gordon—who decamped to California earlier this year to open the brand’s second location in Downtown LA—invited ONE37pm over to hang out for the day. And yeah, we never wanted to leave.

Where was your head at when you opened Bodega in 2006—what was missing from the retail scene in Boston?

Jay Gordon: Very, very little was happening retail-wise.

Dan, one of my partners, was doing semi-legal loft parties and I was doing stuff with him. And [my other partner] Oliver had a really good company that was helping graffiti artists make money. They were just very creative, interesting guys who knew a lot of the right people. So Bodega, we built the first store with just our friends. There was no phone, no sign, totally hidden. But the response was amazing. I was driving down to New York every Monday. I spent all day Tuesday buying trash bags with T-shirts and hoodies and whatever from random little New York City streetwear startups and then filling up my car and driving back to Boston and stocking the store for the next week. It was nuts. We didn’t have a lot of sneakers to start with. The sneaker accounts were a lot harder to get than the clothing accounts.

The Globe did a story on sneaker culture when we first opened, not knowing what they were talking about. It was just the beginning of "What’s going on?" and "Can you believe people buy sneakers for $1,000?" Sneaker collecting at the time was still just for freaks. Anyway, the front cover was a picture of the Gucci Dunk, which we had gotten from a collector. We were just selling other people’s sneakers on consignment at that time.

So after the piece comes out, this guy named Frank Delegra who was the head of Nike New England came to the store. He was just a big, intimidating, tough guy. And he tells me, "I run Nike New England and you guys don’t have a Nike account. You’ll never sell Nikes." So I yell downstairs, "Dan, who have you been calling at Nike?" And he said, "Some asshole named Frank." So then I was like, "What’s his phone number?" and he rattled it off because he had been calling every day. And the guy saw and was like, "Well, I’ve never gotten any of your messages."

And was he flattered at least?

Gordon: Yeah, at least he knew we were doing the right stuff. And the build out was right and everything was good. So we had a Nike account a month later. We got lucky.

And then going to New York to get the clothes in trash bags, was that because the brands were so small or because you guys were so inexperienced—

Gordon: Both, both. We didn’t have a buyer; we didn’t know anything. I was going, there was a store called Recon on Lafayette, and there was a guy named Maurice and we called him Maurice the Pants Man (ed note: Boston joke). But I would sit with him behind the counter and basically just write checks. I parked my car on the sidewalk because I was too scared to park anywhere else, I thought it’d just get broken into with all these random clothes in it. And guys would come with T-shirts and hoodies in trash bags, take the subway and come meet me and I would write checks until the car was full and I would drive back to Boston.

Looking back on that time are you like, ‘Oh man, we should have been more educated. We could’ve made so much more money?’ Or was your lack of experience a good thing?

Gordon: It was a little of both. We were just supporting what we thought was cool and just learning as we went. And those were very easy retail years. People were just throwing cash around and it was just—we were like, "This is easy, retail is amazing!" And then 2007, 2008 came around, everything ground to a halt. No one spent any money and everyone was freaking out. So we learned, we had a couple good years, we paid some bills, and thankfully the bad years were not terrible for us.

Who was your customer at that time?

Gordon: Mostly just local neighborhood kids. College kids weren’t even hearing of us. There’s so many colleges and universities in Boston, which has always helped us. But early on it was just local neighborhood kids and friends of friends.

Can you talk a little bit about how the landscape has changed in the sneaker and streetwear world since you first opened?

Gordon: Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean now it’s almost mass market. We try to stay a step ahead and it’s frustrating because we work with these small little brands and either they go out of business or they do really, really well and we have to let them go because they’re moving on to bigger stores. And once they’re selling at chain stores or whatever we have to leave them. There are one or two exceptions we make. Stussy is a good example—we’ve had them from the beginning and we still carry them today.

So are there more brands to choose from now?

Gordon: There are a lot. I mean most of our clothing brands are Japanese. We had a store in Tokyo for a while which helped us build relationships. It was a pop-up that just kind of kept going. Japanese brands are our bread and butter. And the barrier to entry for a lot of stores is obviously a lot harder to place the order and know people.

I think we have 140 brands right now. We’ve gone as high as 220, 230, but it’s not sustainable. So we try to pick the right ones and do more with them.

Name some Bodega brands that you’re excited about right now...

Gordon: Wacko Maria, they’re a Japanese brand. They’re amazing and just the quality is spectacular and the team is great. They’re just doing a really good job.

Cav Empt is another huge one for us and we have a really good partnership with them. Their stuff is great and they’ve stayed true to it as they’ve grown. Their quality is amazing and they have a really good following.

Stone Island is another one where we were with them before they became popular [in the US], so they’ve been very good to us, and once they got popular and a lot of other stores wanted to carry them. They’ve tried to give us stuff that other people don’t have.

Obviously retail is really hard, especially right now for a lot of people. So what are some things that you think you’ve done right? You’re expanding while a lot of people are closing...

Gordon: I think that’s exactly the time to expand. I think the key for us is we’ve got an amazing customer base and we have a really loyal fanbase. We try to make the retail experience fun, which I think a lot of people are engaging in, and a lot of people missed the boat on. If you’re gonna get someone off their couch—and shopping online is clearly easier than going to a store—you’ve got to make it a good experience.

Okay, I have some questions for you from our Twitter followers. Our own @sarahjake writes, "Were y'all aware that Bodega was the only cool thing to happen to Boston in the early 2000s?"

Gordon: Yes. Absolutely. I think Boston’s gotten better recently but it’s an uphill battle. DC is a city I’ve been to a lot recently and I think Boston was way ahead of DC in the early 2000s and DC has totally overtaken us. There’s cool new restaurants and cool new locations. I feel like Boston got too expensive too fast and a lot of the independent record stores and clothing stores and just cool stuff that should be there can’t afford to be there. So I think Boston is in a tough spot right now.

From @Thekeymaster84: "Did people find your shop more exclusive or a more local spot since it was kind of hidden?"

Gordon: No, we were just trying to have fun. It started out being just locals. Maybe starting in 2008, 2009, tourists started finding us. We were in a bunch of sneaker magazines and got ranked, like, “the second-best sneaker store in the world” and all these random rankings. So people would seek us out. But at first it was just local kids. It was the same group of kids everyday. They grew up in the store and a lot of them work for us now.

Same guy also asked: "Memorable moment from first six months of opening?"

Gordon: We were just scrambling to keep the lights on. We didn’t know what we were doing. But I think the first couple celebrities that came in, that was an eye-opener for us.

Who’d you guys get? Mark Wahlberg?

Gordon: No, which is surprising. He’s never been in. The one that was most impactful to me, this is not the first six months, but it was not super long after we opened. It was Kevin Durant. I was outside on the phone and he got out of a taxi. Like a regular taxi, and he’s a giant and I was like, "That’s Kevin Durant!" and I freaked out. But he was awesome.

Robin Williams was a huge one early on. Maybe a year in, he first came in. [Overall,] he came in maybe 15 times. Eventually I just would send him stuff I thought he would like and he could return stuff he didn’t like, which he never did. He never sent back anything. He was amazing. Very sweet. He knew everything about every brand. He knew more than most of the staff.

From @radejardine: "When starting, what gave you better long-term ROI: theoretical research and development or practical doing and learning-on-the-fly?"

Gordon: The theoretical stuff came into play later. We’re bigger now and we’re making bigger bets. But we’ve also got the practical experience in our back pocket.

Do you remember the first time you guys got together and made a big strategy jump?

Gordon: Last year! A few years ago everything changed and we were working everywhere; like I was working in the basement of the store on a folding table up until 2011, 2012. But it was cool because we were all together, everyone was connected. Then we got too big and some people were working out of the warehouse. So now we have a centralized office and everyone’s together and it’s great to have everyone on the same page and know what’s going on. We’re lucky enough to still truly be independent but we’re getting to the size where it’s gonna be tough. But it’s still us, which is great. It’s still Dan, Oliver, and me.

From @WillieKoganei: "How did you grow without social media then??"

Gordon: Word of mouth. It was friends telling friends. People would want to tell their friends and bring them in and that was it. That was when word of mouth was really word of mouth; now it’s totally not, it’s some boring Facebook post by some famous person.

Is social media a big part of Bodega now?

Gordon: Yeah, it’s a huge part of what we do. We’ve got five full-time photographers, which is a lot. We take it seriously. We want our copy, we want our photos, we want our whole visual dialogue to be consistent and to be unique. People notice, mostly industry people notice. But we’re doing it because it’s what separates us from everyone else, whether people recognize it or not, it’s what we want to do.

It’s smart that you guys are so committed to the physical retail experience but also recognize that the digital relationship is really important.

Gordon: It’s big and we got to it very late. We didn’t have an online store until way later than everyone else. I didn’t want a website, I didn’t want anything. We had a loop that Oliver built that was like this weird little flashes from the movie Heat. People would try to figure out how to get in to the website. But that was it, that was the website. But I didn’t want it, I wanted the whole experience to be personal. I made a mistake, we should have done it a couple of years earlier. But I really wanted it to be special and it was not special if it was just products online. We’re trying to do whatever we can do to make it special and fun online, but it can’t rival the in-store experience so that’s still our focus. People still want to go out and buy stuff. They just want to buy something cool and have a good reason do it.

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