After 50 years, sneaker king still running strong downtown

Over the course of 50 years in the retail business, Glen Lynch has been both lucky and good.

And if the owner of Baggins, known around the world for selling Converse brand sneakers, had to choose, he’d likely have trouble deciding.

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The affable 70-year-old, who admits to feeling his age a little these days, says good fortune, good timing and a little determination have conspired to keep his doors open for half a century.

And a good thing they have, as Baggins is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year on something of a high.

What opened in December 1969 as a head shop, selling bongs and T-shirts, has grown slowly but steadily into a destination for those passionate about footwear — particularly of the Converse and Vans brands.

Baggins now sees annual sales of nearly $5 million and more than 50,000 pairs of shoes — 45 per cent of those sold online.

As Lynch sees it, the store is ticking over nicely, largely due to his staff and, in particular, director Tara Savrtka and her predecessor, Brydie Griffin.

Lynch says both women —Savrtka bought Griffin’s share of the business a few years ago — “did everything” for him and helped the store evolve into the destination it has become both for locals and tourists.

The appeal of the place is obvious. Where else would you find 500 varieties of Converse or Vans shoes? Lynch notes even the brands themselves may not carry that many at their own stores.

Savrtka, who now owns 25 per cent of the business, said their success and longevity is down to making sure they take care of business at home.

“The biggest thing for us is we looked at other small businesses and saw how in the off-season they really struggle. You have to find a way to connect with locals or you will not survive in today’s market,” she said. “If we’re unable to do that, we’re empty six months of the year.”

She also noted they were lucky to have timed their online experiment well — a friend of Lynch designed their first website in the late 1990s and by the time Lynch got to see it, he already had two orders waiting for him.

“That definitely keeps us going at times,” Savrtka said, noting they mainly ship within Canada and the U.S. But Australia, Germany and Japan are tied for third and they have sold shoes all over the map.

Lynch said he knew from the moment he started carrying Converse that he was onto something.

“I think they offered eight styles at the start, so I ordered a bit of all of them, and that grew a little every year,” he said. “I could just see the interest, especially when the tourists came. There was this nostalgia for everyone.

“It was slow and steady, but I was confident it would carry on, and sure enough we were selling more shoes than clothing in the 1970s.”

That would eventually evolve into footwear and accessories, and for a while exclusively Converse. That has since grown to three shoe lines that include Vans and Dr. Martens, Stance socks and Herschel bags and hats.

“A lot of people are passionate about stupid stuff,” said Lynch with a laugh, when asked what draws people to a store that keeps a massive inventory of its few brands. “People don’t retail the way we do. We only carry five brands,” he said.

Baggins also timed its move into a larger store well. It moved from a space at the rear of the Paperbox Arcade building on Lower Johnson in 2014 to 580 Johnson St. as the downtown population started to explode with development and new residents.

“I know a lot of negative things get said about the downtown, but as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been in a lot of downtowns and this is one of the finest around,” said Lynch.

Savrtka said it’s meant a lot of new clientele and certainly more traffic past their doors.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said as they were preparing a survey of the area, they heard business has been strong across most sectors in the core. “Most of our members are feeling confident in the current business climate,” he said, adding that downtown currently boasts a 4.1 per cent vacancy rate, which is near a historic low.

Bray said the growth downtown, where there are now well over 10,000 people living in what’s considered the downtown core, has been a significant driver. “It creates an economy outside of nine-to-five and I think that’s why we are seeing the investment [in the area] because they can rely on a local economy that even five or six years ago didn’t exist,” he said.

While he still loves the store and the job (over spring break he worked a few days in a row, which he admits nearly did him in), Lynch admits to having considered what life might be like with no responsibility. “I’ve had some offers over the years, some good ones,” he said, noting they have all been turned down mainly because the staff might have revolted at the prospect.

“You can’t sell a business that has no employees,” he said. “Besides I’d like to see this carry on beyond me.”

Lynch says it’s only right that Baggins, which weathered the storms of recession several times and lean years, thanks to low overhead and great support from family, friends and understanding landlords, should live on.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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