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San Fernando
Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022
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Vintage Salesman

Throwback Junction seems out of place next to the little bridal shops and vacant storefronts lining San Fernando Road. The consignment apparel retailer is far larger than any of its neighbors – two 2,000-square-foot spaces were gutted to house the boutique – and features a massive 3D sign similar to those at theme parks. The contrasts continue inside, where owner Randy Lewis, 52, is surrounded by racks of clothes designed for men and women roughly half his age. That’s OK with him; with the help of his wife Jessica, the former investment manager has embarked on a venture that combines his passions for business, community and rock music. “People look at me like, ‘What the hell is this old guy doing selling clothes for 20-something kids?’” he said. “But this business is a lot of fun. I have friends in high places who tell me they’re jealous.” Lewis envisions Throwback Junction as the next big resale empire, a Crossroads Trading Post or Buffalo Exchange with a rock ‘n’ roll twist. But first he must win over his market in San Fernando, a challenge that he says he’s ready to take in full stride. Finance guy Lewis describes himself as a “finance guy.” His career began in the early 1990s at Griffin Financial Services, the securities and insurance brokerage of Home Savings of America before it was acquired by Washington Mutual (later dissolved and purchased by JPMorgan Chase & Co.). After leaving Griffin, he bounced from boutique investment houses, to a hedge fund, and finally to an investor relations firm where he remained for a decade before realizing he missed crunching numbers. “The analytical world was something I liked and was really good at,” Lewis said. Armed with a master’s degree from Anderson School of Management at UCLA, he and a few of the firm’s partners branched off to form a professional services division. From there, he set out on his own, writing business plans and performing valuations for startups and private companies as an independent consultant. “This was the dot-com era – people were throwing money around like candy,” Lewis recalled. “I did a business plan for $25,000 in 2000 – that would be a joke today. I couldn’t believe how much money I was making.” The prosperity came to an abrupt end in the late 2000s. Enthusiasm for entrepreneurship collapsed with the Great Recession, obliterating Lewis’ business. Determined to start anew, he took up part-time teaching gigs at Pierce College, California State University – Channel Islands and Los Angeles Valley College while brainstorming ways to beat the next cycle of boom and bust. “That’s when the wheels started turning,” Lewis said. “I thought to myself, ‘What kind of business can withstand an economic downturn?’” Obstacles ahead In 2012, he finally found his answer: resale apparel. The buy-sell-trade model works because clothing is a necessity, he reasoned, and there’s never a shortage of suppliers when you’re paying them in cash for their used goods. Throw in strong profit margins on inherently eco-friendly products, and the opportunity seemed too reasonable to pass up. Conversations with his business and finance students confirmed his hunch. Buffalo Exchange was repeatedly cited as the preferred retailer of the collegiate crowd; those who lived in the North Valley lamented having to drive to Ventura Boulevard to shop at the nearest location. “I kept hearing, ‘We wish there was something like that where we live,’ so I thought, ‘I can afford to take time to figure this out,’” Lewis said. “And it’s not rocket science, right? It’s just getting people in the store, having what they want and buying for less than you’re selling for.” The reality wasn’t quite so simple. Finding a storefront at the right location and price took about six months, and while the city of San Fernando was delighted when he settled on a pair of adjacent properties in a century-old building on San Fernando Road, local residents were skeptical. “The city wants this area to have something for everybody, because it doesn’t right now,” Lewis said. “But there’s always some pushback when you’re making those changes. People worry about being priced out because something new is moving in.” Finding the storefront solved one problem, but it also presented another. The two units resembled a “1960s dentist’s office,” Lewis said, with drab walls and cheap linoleum. His landlord commissioned a demolition team to rip out the low-hung ceiling, strip plaster from the interior brick and knock down the wall dividing the spaces. Then, Lewis and his wife set about transforming the room into a fashion-meets-rock boutique, with Lynyrd Skynyrd posters, vinyl records and quirky hipster elements, including a refrigerator “closet” and dressing room doors built from a recycled fence. The store’s soft opening took place in July, more than three months after Lewis had signed his lease. The final result was well-worth the work and the wait, he said. “This project was way bigger than I thought,” Lewis admitted. “But I was going for that Melrose Avenue or Ventura Boulevard look, and I think I pulled it off.” ‘Something for everybody’ With Throwback Junction officially open for business, it was time to start getting shoppers through the door. Once again, Lewis found himself with a more daunting task than he’d anticipated. “For the first couple months, I kept struggling with my target market,” he said. “I was just getting so many different types of people.” Lewis had imagined Throwback Junction patrons would look a lot like his college students, many of whom had grown up in the United States as first- or second-generation Hispanic immigrants. He noticed that a significant number of them shared his love of classic rock music, so he was inspired to stock up on items that appealed to their mutual taste in addition to the trendier pieces favored by the “Coachella crowd.” “When I was teaching, I would see the Hispanic kid wearing the Nirvana T-shirt and I would think, ‘That’s my guy,’” Lewis explained. “He might be Mexican, but he was born here and grew up on rock and American music.” As expected, the Led Zeppelin jackets, bohemian frocks and Guns N’ Roses gear did catch the eyes of young shoppers. But Lewis quickly realized that they made up only a small majority of Throwback Junction visitors – and that neglecting other demographics was a mistake. “The kids would come in wanting the Misfits shirt and the Doc Martens, and I thought OK, cool, that’s my market,” Lewis said. “But then in the mornings I would get the 60-year-old grandmothers.” He brought in styles better suited for older adults as well as clothes for toddlers and children, thinking that City Hall and courthouse employees might stop by during lunch to shop for their little ones. Casting a wider net has paid off. “I probably won’t restock the children’s clothes once they sell, but I did find that for my kind of store, I can’t really target too specifically,” he said. “My mantra now is ‘something for everybody.’” No regrets Lewis is starting over just as many of his peers in finance are reaching the apex of the career ladder, and he has little doubt he would be among them had he chosen to remain in the industry. Looking back, Lewis knows that enjoyment of finance work would not have been sufficient to compensate for what he perceives as a draining professional culture. “I still feel that I could have pursued (a successful finance career) if I’d just worked harder and tried to get more business than what I was doing,” he said. “I just didn’t enjoy the grind.” Building his own company is harder than helping others build theirs, but for Lewis, the hustle pays off in personal satisfaction. And despite having advised many startups and churning out dozens of business plans over the years, he has found there is no substitute for firsthand experience – even when it comes to things he once took for granted. “When I did business valuations for divorces, the first thing I’d ask for was the couple’s QuickBooks file, and it was always such a mess – I was a little ‘holier-than-thou’ about it,” he said. “This is month five at Throwback Junction, and I haven’t even opened my own QuickBooks yet. I’ll never judge anyone for not having QuickBooks again.”

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