Even though Ruben Leal & Doug Behner, co-owners of Tradesman, have a combined 40 years of visual merchandising and marketing experience, when I interviewed them, they explained how it’s still just a matter of taking things one step at a time.
Abbott Kinney seems like the place to be in Venice. What made you guys choose to open this store on Lincoln, where, in the past it was hard to get foot traffic?
RL: I think the first thing that really drew us to it was the actual space itself. We were driving down Lincoln one day and we actually noticed the “For Lease” sign in the window. We’d driven by the building a million times.
DB: And I think we both noticed it individually but never said anything.
RL: Yeah, he’d seen it at one point. I saw it but I never said anything. And then when we started looking for spaces, you know. We thought about Abbott Kinney but after looking around and we thought it didn’t feel right… it was really expensive, and we were unsure about it.
DB: It didn’t feel like us… our personalities… because we’re not… we don’t like being so… out there.
It’s funny because the first time I stumbled upon your store I was going to the Wit’s End at night, and I hadn’t walked Lincoln Blvd for about two years or something... I walked by your store and I was like, wow. This looks really cool. I gotta come back here. I don’t think I would’ve done that on Abbott Kinney because there are so many stores.
RL: Yeah, that’s kind of the thing, it’s like when we started looking, I was like “Oh, I saw this place on Lincoln,” and he was like “Oh wait, I think I know the place you’re talking about.” And we drove by and were like “Yeah, that’s it.”
DB: We got out of the car and looked in the windows and were like, “This is the space.”
What’s really interesting is, I’ve been talking to a couple other small business owners and the people that I interview, they all say something very specific about, “the space” itself.
DB: Right. Well, I think then we started questioning things like, why is Lincoln Boulevard—why are all the boulevards in Los Angeles—so in need of life? It’s insane. This makes no sense to me. This is PCH.
RL: The street had such a bad reputation for locals, for people that have lived in Venice for so many years…
Do you guys live in Venice?
RL: We do, yeah, towards the beach. So being kind of new to LA we were like, we don’t get it, we don’t understand it. It’s such a great street, there’s so much opportunity…
DB: But I think originally, even with the boulevards, we would drive down there and be like “Wow, there’s nothing going on.” But then you go behind the boulevard… and then it’s like, “I’m sorry, but this is an amazing neighborhood right here… and the boulevard is dividing this!”
I feel like it’s super courageous of you guys to open up a shop on Lincoln Blvd, where, for years it’s gotten this really bad rap. I know a little bit about your history because you told me you worked for the Gap for a long time in visual merchandising and marketing. What inspired you guys to have your own shop?
RL: The reason we actually came down to LA was that I’d worked for the company for nineteen years total, right out of high school, and same thing for him, he was there 21 years. And we loved working for the company so much and we did really great things. We got to travel and do great stuff. But, for both of us, it got to the point where we were over being a part of the whole corporate culture. And you kind of know when it’s time to move on.
DB: But we weren’t over the art of merchandising, which you start to lose when you’re doing other jobs in a corporate setting.
RL: So we were like, we need a change. We need to switch it up, challenge ourselves… So we decided to leave our jobs and move down to LA. And after being down here for a few months I started working, doing freelance stuff, kind of what I was doing before. But we were like, you know what? We don’t want to work for anybody else. We want to do it on our own. And make our own living. Jump in headfirst, basically. Which took us a little while but we took the plunge.
Another thing that I realized about your store—you guys have all these incredible products, all these great brands. Was that something that you wanted to do? Did you say to yourself, we love these brands, we want to show people these amazing brands that have such good quality?
RL: Yeah I think that was the basis of us starting out. We wanted to fill the store with stuff that we love.
DB: Either, it was a brand that we loved in the past, or a brand we discovered and we love the people that produce the brand, or we love the product…
RL: The brands that we work with, they love what they do so much that it makes us love it even more, because you feel everything that goes into it. We try not to work with big companies, mostly because we like having a relationship with people.
So you’re getting to know these people on a personal basis?
RL: Yeah and that’s what’s cool. You develop a relationship and it makes it nice because when you sell the product to other people, they’re discovering it for the first time. It’s a little community. People come for that and they’re so invested in it.
You were talking about opening up the store, how you were kind of scared at first. What pushed you off that ledge?
DB: I think I pushed him. I don’t know if the word is “scared” though. What happens is, people get so far ahead of themselves in an adventure like this. People who care about you and your well-being are asking questions that you’re not ready to answer. Then you start to get ahead of yourself. Then the fear sets in. Then the doubt… and then all of those things… and I don’t like those things. I like taking it step by step by step—and I don’t need to know what Step 12 is. I’ll figure out what Step 12 is by taking all of these other steps. And I’m not going to let this person instill the fear. Even though it’s care—they care—but then what it does to the person who’s on this venture… it can kind of put a stop to it.
So these are people who were saying things like, “What? Are you crazy? Opening up a store?”
RL: Yeah. And it’s all meant well. “You’re putting a lot of yourself, your money, time, whatever into it. Are you sure it’s the right thing?” Which, you appreciate because they care about you. But you just kind of have to jump off the cliff. We can’t let our own self-doubt stop us from doing it. If this is really what you want to do you just gotta do it. Be smart about it, definitely. Really understanding what steps you need to take to get there and not get ahead of yourself because you could hold yourself back from moving forward. Not overthinking it, too, because I tend to be the over-thinker sometimes. And he’s really good at saying, “Okay well, wait, what is it exactly that we need to do? Let’s figure it out.”
Where do you guys see the store in five years?
RL: It’s funny because people always ask us, “Do you want to have your own line? Design your own clothes? Do you have a website?” Simple questions like that. And for us we’ve always said, “Let’s focus on the first two years and get through that…”
DB: “…And then we’ll figure out what’s right.”
RL: Kind of redefining success…
DB: Because success in today’s world is like, faster, more, more, bigger, bigger… We just came from that in our former jobs. So we wanted to be more about community.
RL: And we really wanted to focus on the actual store itself. And really kind of doing what we love and in a space and working with a product, building a fixture, doing all those types of things… And getting to a point where we feel really good about that, then figuring out from there what the next step is.
DB: Before we opened the store I’d never picked up a hammer. The shop has allowed us to explore these other things that we’ve always wanted to do. So we’re building our own fixtures, we’re doing it all ourselves from the ground up versus being responsible for people who do those things. It’s nice because you gain skills that you may have thought… I would never have been able to build a table… Look at that, I can build a table!
RL: Someone asked me, “Are you going to open a second location?” And I was like, “I don’t know? Probably? Maybe? I don’t know. Not now. Not anytime soon.” It’s one of those things where it’s like, yeah, eventually it’d be really great but we’re not there yet. We’re really good at understanding where we are in the journey, so to speak, in order to understand where we’re going go next.
That’s really great. Like you were saying, with today’s definition of success being, ‘more, bigger, what’s the next step’… It’s great that you want to do something like this. And the store’s great. And you really are creating a sense of community.
RL: The moment that we started realizing we were getting repeat customers we were like, oh, maybe this is working a little, you know? I mean, it’s been good, definitely. We’ve met great people we never would’ve met before.
The world needs more of that, especially in the United States, where the small business owner has disappeared. I think it’s reemerging in a sense. You feel more connected to where you’re living.
RL: Definitely. And it’s good meeting people that you can form your own community with.
DB: We also live in a community where a lot of people work from home. So everything’s the Internet, the Internet, the Internet. And people start to lose personal contact. We actually had a woman come in last weekend and say that. She said she’s kind of lost that personal contact. She feels like she doesn’t know how to relate to people anymore. And she was in here and we had a good conversation. And that’s her reconnecting with the world.