By Brandon Martin
Some people collect vinyl records, others collect baseball cards. But Hunter Shively and Jeffery Hairston collect high-end sneakers and thanks to their business, Sole Zone, residents of Martinsville-Henry County can start collecting too.
“We’re kind of like a pawn shop for shoes but not really. It’s more like trading cards,” Shively said. “We buy, sell and trade. If you see a shoe in here, you can either trade towards that shoe or pay with cash. You can also do a combination of the two, or we might even end up paying you if you’ve got a really pricey pair.”
Even though the two Henry County residents have a passion for shoes, the sneaker connoisseurs didn’t know each other until a chance meeting 2.5 hours away.
“There is a shoe convention in Charlotte that’s been around about five or six years. I would go to it every month. I would run into him every now and then. Us finding each other in Charlotte and both being from Martinsville, we started to talk and began selling our personal collection to each other before it grew into this,” Shively said. “It’s crazy how things happen sometimes.”
At the time, Shively said there weren’t many local places that resold shoes.
With a large clientele in Charlotte, N.C., Shively said “I’ve been going since 2012 to buy and sell down there. I’ve always wanted to do it, but I’m only 23. I didn’t think it was possible until I got older. Once I started buying and growing my collection, I decided I might as well see if I could start my own shop. We really jumped on faith to do it.”
The leap came naturally for the two basketball fans, which Shively credits for spurring his interest in the sneaker industry.
“I played basketball my whole life, so I was a big Kobe Bryant fan. With basketball, you see everybody with the crazy shoes on the court. When I was playing, I would always try to have a new pair of shoes on because that’s what they did,” he said. “They were big trend setters and it’s something I always admired, but when you’re 12, you can’t really financially do that with money from taking the trash out or shoveling snow.”
Conversely, Hairston didn’t play basketball, but he grew up in the best time to be a basketball fan, according to Shively.
“He’s about to turn 31, so he grew up in the Michael Jordan prime era. He saw it all evolve throughout the years,” Shively said. “He got to actually see it, whereas I have to YouTube it. I missed all of the good memories.”
Even without the firsthand memories, Shively developed a love and appreciation for sneakers as a fashion accessory.
“It kind of describes who you are. You can tell a lot about someone based on what their style is like,” he said. “You’ve got your basketball models that appeal to athletic, sporty people. You’ve got the expensive items where people want to be flashy and go out to hit the town. It’s really interesting to see people’s outfits in general and how they piece the two together.”
Given his affinity for flashy footwear, Shively amassed an impressive collection of sneakers before opening the business.
“I sold a bunch of my personal collection to start this,” he said. “I probably had around 25-30 pairs and he had about the same amount,” he said of Hairston. “It was roughly around 100 (pairs) after we bought a little bit more to open up the place.”
The duo officially launched in 2019, and Shively said the whole process has been a learning experience.
“When I first got my business license, I was 21,” he said, adding that the two sought guidance through the Startup Martinsville, Virginia program.
The program is an intensive eight-week entrepreneurial boot-camp program, culminating into a business plan competition in which participants vie for a total of $45,000 in grant funds and additional prizes and loan opportunities to help start or expand their businesses in the uptown area.
“We met a lot of influential people from the area, and they guided us through the hard stuff,” Shively said. “They helped us figure out all the technical things, like the necessary paperwork, taxes, licenses and things of that nature. It was very overwhelming for someone just jumping straight into it.”
Their establishment currently is located on Virginia Avenue in Villa Heights.
“We originally started with just the bus,” Shively said. “We wanted a store, but we also wanted to try a different route where we could go to Charlotte or Richmond and bring everything we’ve got. That’s where the bus came from.”
Shively said that the business eventually outgrew the bus and the brick-and-mortar store opened on Black Friday in 2019. The pandemic underscored the importance of the site.
“We have a website that we use for our out-of-town customers. When COVID hit, we initially focused more on that aspect of the business,” he said. “Something strange happened though, because unlike everybody else, the website kind of fell on its face. We started selling more in the store than we were on the website, even though we could only allow like 3-4 people in the store.”
Shively said the pandemic had a tremendous impact on the fashion industry.
“All of a sudden, everyone was stuck in a house. They couldn’t go out to show their outfit off,” he said. “People weren’t able to put on their new shoes to go out to a bar or to eat. There wasn’t really a need to buy a $200 to $300 shoe every other weekend just to look at it.”
The effects began to wear on the startup, forcing tough decisions that ultimately stalled the business.
“With half of our business taking a hit, low traffic and low funds, we were barely forking out enough to make rent and pay utilities. Those are the basics, so we knew we had to at least cover those expenses if we wanted our business to have a chance at making it,” Shively said. “We had to stop buying new shoes, which prevented us from having a new selection for customers.”
To make it through the tough economic times, Shively said the business applied for and received a grant through the Pay it Forward MHC Small Business Relief Fund.
The fund was created after the Harvest Foundation invested $1 million in honor of local healthcare workers and frontline responders to the Virginia 30 Day Fund. The Virginia 30 Day Fund was created by Pete Snyder and his wife, Burson, to save as many Virginia jobs as possible while small businesses wait for mandated shutdowns to end and for federal funding to be allocated.
“That allowed us to start switching up our inventory and it all worked out so great for us,” Shively said. “We’re paid for through the year, so now we can refocus on what made us want to start the business in the first place. We can experiment a little more now. What we were spending on rent and utilities before, we can invest in purchasing more high-end shoes. It allows us to use some of that cushion to keep customers engaged in our latest items.”
Although times were tough, Shively said the store still had its share of dedicated shoppers.
“You still had the few heavy collectors that would buy just to keep it going, but the average people definitely stopped buying like they normally would,” he said. “We have collectors that have been buying and selling for 20 years. We have one shoe that is $1,000, so you have people that might come in, buy that shoe and be done for a few months. Then you have others that won’t purchase anything above $250, but they will purchase like three or four. Those people might trade those three or four and get the $1,000 pair. People also do the reverse and trade the pricier shoes for more pairs to build their own collection.”
The store offers more than just shoes, according to Shively.
“It’s the same with clothing but that is a little more technical,” he said. “We have a bunch of vintage stuff from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. It’s stuff you can’t just go buy anymore but they are loved for the memories they bring. We also have high-end street wear that is more modern.”
Shively said the store can also be used by other local fashion startups.
“We have a bunch of local brands as well. People with business licenses for their clothing brand, we will take and provide a storefront for their clothes,” he said. “That part is really fun, and I like doing that a lot.”
With the business trying to rebound from the economic crisis, Shively said he is looking for ways to thank the store’s dedicated clientele.
“I want to do a customer appreciation day, but I’m not certain what all that will entail at this point,” he said. “The idea started with our last Black Friday sale. It was probably the craziest moment I’ve had as a business owner.”
Shively said the pair planned for that sale throughout the pandemic by stockpiling merchandise for a large year-end push.
“That fortunately worked as planned,” he said. “With the pandemic, you have your social distancing and everything, so we were only expecting like 4 to 5 people. I arrived at the store 40 minutes before we were supposed to open and there were about 50 people outside. It blew my mind. We are trying to have a Black Friday 2.0 kind of thing. There should be several free shoes and a couple of $1 shoes, like on Black Friday.”
For more information on Sole Zone, visit https://solezoneva.com/.