Bodega is not your average store. Its range of clothing, sneakers and accessories can put many to shame while its collaborations have consistently been some of the finest on offer. No short cuts, no bandwagon jumping, just quality product.
What really makes Bodega so different is, well, pretty much everything about it.
For starters there’s the location, on a quiet residential street in Boston, to the fact there’s no sign to indicate you’re even outside the right building. Some stickers on a bench suggest it might have been there once but perhaps it’s now long gone. Those eagle eyed enough to notice the details in the windows would realise your average neighbourhood bodega is unlikely to have a Kostas Seremetis poster next to the fabric softener.
Enter the convenience store and venture beyond the bleach and past the bug spray and there’s something a little off about the back wall and vending machine. Take a step closer and the wall slides to the right, revealing the ‘real’ Bodega. Or perhaps the ‘other’ Bodega.
But this isn’t about having gimmicks for the sake of it and Bodega is more than the sum of its considerable parts. It’s that sense of pride in having a physical store, of Bodega being a destination that sets it apart. This is a space you need to visit rather than just another sterile wooden or white-walled cube with shelves of Air Max 1s.
From Bug Away Spray to bugging out on Acronym tech jackets all in the space of 20 metres. There’s a schizophrenia about this place, which makes it so compelling.
So while in Beantown, Breaks travelled out to Brookline Avenue and Bodega’s art space, ‘The Fourth Wall Project’. There we met up with one of the trio of founders, Oliver Mak, with the ensuing conversation touching on running a store within a store, the state of industry and how to do collaborations the right way.
Can you give some background on how Bodega started with yourself, Jay and Dan?
I was DJing, doing loft parties/pop up art shows and starting a non-profit in Boston finding legal work for at risk youth that were graffiti artists. I met Dan through the B-boy crew the floorlords – we were working on a big hip hop festival with the mayor’s office. Jay was a smooth OG dude I met in the office I worked at. We formed like Voltron and started Bodega in the early /mid 2000’s on bar napkins and drawings in coffee shops.
And from the first moment, was the plan to always have a physical store?
Definitely. We wanted to create the physical experience of hunting for great product.
How did you choose the location – it’s not the most obvious spot in the city, or was that part of the attraction – to find the perfect spot for your plans and make it a ‘go to’ place regardless of the street it was on?
It a triangulation of the two main shopping areas. Dan was down with SKAM from Livestock in Toronto and saw how they were central but in the cut. We emulated that with our location.
During the early years, how many people do you think didn’t realise there was a store behind the vending machine door? It used to have a ‘call’ button right, but now it’s automatic?
Yeah, we don’t mention specifics (or allow photography) of the secret passage, you shouldn’t either. It’s automatic but you gotta find the sweet spot. Everyday people still come in without knowing about the hidden realm. Those who do find it have this glimmer of wonder wash over their face and their imagination sparks. Could there be a shadow world lurking just beneath the surface?
The front section still functions as a store with household goods. Did you get City inspectors coming around saying “that’s not meeting regulations” or anything like that?
Every crew needs one person who can talk to the cops. Thankfully we have Jay. He can cool out any city inspector with Jedi mind tricks.
And is it right that originally you scrapped together old Toys R’ Us shelving and second hand counter tops?
We scavenged fixtures from a toy store closing and a place that sold hair extensions for 30 years. It was like being an archeologist- trying to make sense out of rubble. I scored a really great King Cobra Malt Liquor poster from the hair weave spot. The model looks like Rae Dawn Chong.
How long did it take for the store to really take off? For the ‘big’ launches do you get people queuing down the street past all those apartment buildings?
A homeless man fell asleep on a radiator in the front on opening day. I count that as when our store really took off. First big queue was for the one time only pack from Nike. Probably sold 200-300 pair of trainers in an hour and I think that I was around 8 -12 months after opening.
What advice would you give to people who are thinking about starting up their own store?
Retail is a very difficult gig. Don’t do it unless you can design and sell your own brand/ product as well as have some experience and contacts in the field. Contribute to the culture instead of just profiting off of it. Most of the shops that started at the same time as us are out of business. Streetwear officially died in 08/09. If you’re gonna do anything, do something worthwhile that the world hasn’t seen before.
And what about brands? You must get approached all the time to get gear stocked in Bodega – any do’s and don’ts for the people out there?
Don’t show up with a trashbag of product unannounced.
Do set up appointments.
Don’t name your brand ‘Bitch Killa’.
Do floss regularly.
Do attend tradeshows & show product there instead of in our tiny cramped offices.
Do you have some general thoughts on what you’re seeing out there at the moment? The ‘scene’ seems to awash with 5 panels and pocket tees. And cats.
The barrier to entry is gone & anyone can make a t-shirt line. Just like punk rock – if you can play three chords, you got a band. Most people are recycling pop garbage. I think things are at a crossroads. Everyone’s gotta look inwards and ask – what do we WANT to say? How do we make it new?
With some much focus on online shopping, has it been a challenge having a physical location, or is it spurring you on to keep the store fresh?
The physical shop is the key to our success. It has a feeling and experience that people can’t forget. It’s impossible (for us at least) to make an online analogue. The cycles of fashion and art keep the shop fresh.
What are locals really into, brand-wise at the moment? Boston strikes me a very different place to say, London or New York.
Boston is so diverse. There are people from every country in the world here attending university. Due to that diversity there is no single subculture or fashion profile that is dominant. Hood cats wear jordans and foams. Suburban college kids have looked exactly the same for 15 years. Art school kids started getting back into Doc Martens again. At our shop the big brands are Nike and Vans footwear. Apparel is a big mix of traditional American sportswear for apparel.
Let’s talk collabs now – starting with one of the newest, the NB 577 HYPRCAT. How did that come about and what were the design process/thoughts behind the shoe? It had me at ‘perforated toe cap’.
It was all based off the colors from Super Nintendo and a game called Starfox. Peep the fleck in the branding panel in the uppers. Our design team just wanted to take that old man shoe and juxtapose it with a little young man nostalgia.
What has been your personal favourite collaboration to date?
Saucony Elite as a collection. It’s been our first time where we’ve done a collection every 4-6 months and have seen our efforts change Saucony as a brand. Now they’re sweated by the sneaker heads and we had some part in it!
How do you go about collaboration with the likes of NB, Saucony, Lacoste etc? Has it got to a point now that people approach you?
Yeah, it’s a small industry and you either have worked with people from the company on previous projects or you see them out n about in the travels. The good collabs are exchanges of ideas with similar values…usually comes from having a beer together and talking about what has been taking up brain space lately.
So have there been any collabs you’ve turned down as you didn’t think it ‘fitted’ Bodega?
None. We are absolute whores. Wait….Actually we have turned down a few brands that didn’t make sense. I think you just feel it in your bones, but then again we’ve been turned down ourselves for half baked ideas.
And finally, any last words of wisdom?
No wisdom, I’m too young to have any of that. I do have words but I tend to put my foot in my mouth.