The Oral History of Bodega

Boston's best boutique, hidden in plain sight.

Founded 15 years ago, Bodega opened up in Boston with a simple premise: A discerning boutique that was “hidden in plain sight.” In this case, a Snapple vending machine was a literal doorway into a world full of covetable sneakers and rare gear.

So obviously, it made perfect sense to team up with them to dive into their history, and celebrate 15 years of business while talking about how they designed their stores, and what prompted them to open up in Los Angeles a few years ago.

As a special thanks to our PPF Pack subscribers, we’ve also inserted three HIDDEN coupon codes throughout the article. Each one is good for $100 off and can only be redeemed once. Happy hunting, and enjoy the story below!

The Crew:

Jay Gordon, co-founder/co-owner

Oliver Mak,  co-founder/co-owner

Matt Zaremba, director of marketing

Ricky Orng, art director

Ryan Couch, head buyer

The Beginning

Oliver: Jay and I were working in the same office. I think I was unceremoniously fired because all I did was smoke weed at a desk for a year, hung over. I was doing interesting projects outside of that, DJing for events that crossed over from sneakers, fashion, and street art, and making a ruckus in general as a promoter.

Jay: We were in this shared office in downtown Boston with two other people in this giant space. We used to just talk about different things we would like to do, and then, a bunch of things happened one after another, and we were like: "Let's do it. Let's make this happen."

Oliver: I already knew of Dan [Natola], the other founder, because he was already a legend in terms of art. I linked with him through the Floor Lords B-boy crew. I  introduced Dan to Jay. We were all at a nightclub called the Middlesex that had just opened, and we started writing out the shoddy business plan on a bar napkin.

I put a big deck together that I showed an investor. And he said, "I don't want to see it. Just tell me what your idea is." I spent four weeks on that thing, and no one ever saw it! But he gave us money, so we started.

Jay: I can remember a few things that were part of the inspiration. A friend of mine in the UK had me meet him at this pub, and I was there for an hour. This was before everyone had cell phones. People kept coming in, but the place looked empty. I was on my third beer, and I was just like: “Where is this guy?”

I asked the bartender where everyone was going, and he asked if I had any cash, so I showed him and he sent me around the bar. There was this guy sitting there, and he opened a door and there was a full casino behind this shitty little pub. We talked about having that sense of excitement, and how to get grown people, not just kids, truly excited on a regular basis.

Oliver: I grew up in Manhattan and Queens. That's where my extended family is. So, street culture, graffiti, and everything about East coast fashion in New York influenced me coming into retail. I was consuming a ton of publications centered out of New York at that time, like Vapors, Mass Appeal, and FRANK51, and even Accelerator and Giant Robot out of San Fran. These were pre-internet glimpses into another culture that didn’t exist outside of your cultural center touch points.

Jay: Everyone told us we were crazy, which is another good sign. When everyone tells you you're on the wrong path, I think it's good. Everyone told us: "You can't do that in Boston. You should do it in New York or LA." We got very lucky, but Boston was a great place to do it. 

One, because a lot of the sneaker companies are based here. Two, there are so many colleges and universities. Early on, all these kids would come in, and then they would go back to wherever they were from, and spread the gospel. We got very lucky on a few things, and it took off remarkably quickly. 

Oliver: Hunting for incredible stuff that was not visible on the surface of mainstream culture that we always felt alienated from, using that as a way to connect to other people was really a huge point of how to form a brand. That concept of hunting for what we were really interested in and getting it all in one space really solidified into how we laid out Bodega as a hidden space. We knew that we could attract enthusiasts from around the world. We just filled the place with things that we were interested in, and stuff that we created, as long as it was special. 

Jay: Early on we were closed on Tuesdays, and I would drive down to New York, because that was really where everything was coming from. I would park on the sidewalk in front of Recon, and guys would show up with trash bags of t-shirts and hoodies that they had printed. Coup D'etat, No Mas, all these guys would show up, and I would just write checks until my car was full. Then I would drive back to Boston, and we would restock the shelves. 

The Turning Point

Jay: We didn't have a Nike account when we first opened. It didn't take long, but it took a couple months. But it was amazing. When we first opened, it was so much fun. The response was so good. And we could introduce all these brands because there was no other way to really see them. And I was driving down there, and picking up trash bags of stuff, and driving it back every week, and restocking the shelves, and starting all over it.

Oliver: Magazines played a huge role in publicizing us nationally. Us getting named the number two sneaker shop in the world by Urb —after Undefeated— within four months of us opening our doors was crazy. Chris Robinson I met through graffiti when I was running a nonprofit. He ended up progressing in his career and becoming the director for Wale’s “Chillin’” music video. He remembered me and was like: “Yo, I saw that you opened up a shop. I want to do it there.”

Jay: We had already said no to a lot of people; we weren't really interested in that kind of stuff. He was like: “What do we have to do to make this happen?” We made some pretty outlandish requests, and shockingly, they did it. We were like: “You have to be in and out in four hours. And we want this amount of money.” And they were like: “Okay.” It was nuts!

Ryan: I actually started at Bodega as an intern while I was still in college. After my internship was up, I was brought on full-time. When I first started, we had some pretty good brands that were ahead of their time. Stone Island, Cav Empt, and Acronym are three that really stick out to me. Manastash was another one that we had early. 

Leo, who was the buyer when I started, was definitely putting me on to a bunch of  brands that I had never, ever heard of. It was definitely a really cool place for me to gain most of my industry knowledge.I was lucky enough to be around people who were finding these brands before the rest of the market caught onto them.

Oliver: For the first two years, we were really concentrated on this movement of independent, printable tees. Stuff like what Jay had mentioned as far as No Mas and Coup D'etat,, as well as people like SSUR, Anything, and IRAK. It was super downtown New York-type stuff.

Matt: It was a very organic scene that just bloomed. Usually I would just pop by there on the way back to my apartment just to say what's up to my friends. It was a place to hang out, and it was really a hub for people who were into subculture and interesting things to congregate, especially in Boston. 

Oliver: I remember very distinctly in 2006, that was the year that everyone did an  article about sneakerhead culture, and that there was this independent apparel scene called “streetwear,” and that’s where it shifted.

Matt: You could see that transition to more men's fashion happen. Sneaker culture as we now know it was getting more mainstream attention, and there’s definitely these waves you can look back on and see the evolution of streetwear as a commodity.

The Graphic Language

Oliver: We did printable tees at The Lodge. The original graphic designer was actually me, and we had our friend who was part of Matt's crew, Mr. Never do a graphic sheet for us. We didn't really attack cut and sew until we brought in our first two designers, Randy and Marvin, who just recently passed. Rest in peace. Love him. And I met them through the nonprofit graffiti stuff I was doing before Bodega.

Jay: Part of what sustains Bodega is the makeup of it is rooted in this culture and its creatives, and it still is. What feeds into the longevity is there's a real belief in keeping it going, and having something that represents what we're seeing.

Ryan: I feel like the Beeper T-shirt, for me especially, has that nostalgic feeling. It hits people in different ways. Growing up, my brother and my sister had those exact see-through beepers with the color. And when it] came out, it was special to me because it brought me back to looking at what my older sister and brother had, thinking it was so cool, and that “I can't wait until I get one of those” feeling.

Matt: A big part of Bodega is that cut-and-paste, DIY, analog aesthetic. It’s the nostalgic cultural foundation that a lot of us came up on. Especially in this age of everything being so digital, it doesn’t necessarily tugs at the heartstrings, but it definitely takes you back to a simpler time.

Ricky: Got to shout out Drew Bar on that graphic. That's definitely one of my favorites. I think I missed out on both of those styles.  I think Drew ended up getting 20 different beepers off of eBay, and that's how we ended up making the all-over print button up. That camp shirt was made up of all these items that we've been collecting. 

Matt: It also represents a lot of the analog aesthetic that we prioritize, and that you see in our designs. Not only for products, but for even digital assets.

The Westward Expansion

Oliver: Probably five years ago we discussed doing something else, and just started looking at LA. I'd been out there, my twin brother lives out there. And I wasn't super into the retail scene out here. It's different on the West coast than the East coast. I felt like the in-store experience wasn't great. I was going to a couple stores, and the guys were just ignoring customers, and it wasn't a great experience. We thought that we could have fun out here.

Jay: The Boston store took us 25 locations to find one. We looked at so many, just trying to find the right neighborhood, and find the right location. For LA, it was a little easier, because  I was pretty big on the arts district as soon as I saw it. And then, we branched out from there. And as soon as we saw where we are now, it was just too good an opportunity to have that much space, and to make it that interesting and complex. For a little company like us, it was too good to pass up.

Oliver: Jay was really visionary with bringing that to fruition, and identifying it as like: “Yo, we have to make this move. It'll make us a national brand.”

Jay: I wanted the second floor, and they were like, "No way. That's office space. That's where we're going to really make our money." But I really wanted to do something a little more complex than just a regular store. 

Oliver: When we started really working in LA, I started to realize it’s where a lot of what we love comes from. LA gave birth to so many things in terms of art, fashion, and culture that shaped my whole worldview. What we were doing in Boston became an industry, but LA had been on that for at least two decades.

Jay: We've been very lucky. I remember GQ called us one of The 10 Best Men's Stores in America. The same year, they voted Boston the least fashionable city in America. There are a couple pretty awesome retailers that have been in Boston. Louis was a spectacular store way before its time. And Riccardi’s been there forever, but taking it a little bit younger and a little less expensive than those guys was a lot of fun. 

Boston is not known as a very welcoming city. It's pretty tough to break in. A lot of people who move to Boston don't last a year or two. We wanted something that was friendly and nice, where the staff was knowledgeable but cool and not pushy. Boston hadn't seen anything like that. Everyone's just been very welcoming to have us there, and really embraced us as the hometown store.