Keith Gage-Cole is a man who describes himself variously as an old hippie, a storyteller, a history buff and someone with an eye for art and fashion.
So how does a self-described “old hippie,” who never graduated from high school, someone who got his start selling posters and black lights, hash pipes and counter-culture newspapers, succeed and prosper as a leading retailer of high-end and designer shoes in Victoria?
“Some people say I’m crazy, but if I’m crazy, then I’m crazy in a way that makes people happy,” says the owner of Heart & Sole Shoes and his newest boutique, Heart & Sole Too, a high-end hosiery and essentials boutique that recently opened across the street from its sister store.
“I’ve always stuck my nose to the grindstone and worked pretty hard,” he says. But above all, he notes, “I’m prospering because I have a great staff and a great location. I pay attention to what my customers ask us about. When they mention a brand, we look it up. Other stores ignore them. We treat our customers like family because we don’t want one-time customers — we want lifetime customers.”
So there it is. No secret sauce. No savvy moves learned in business school. Just a lot of real-life experience gained from growing up in Victoria and spending half a century in retail — and the desire to make people happy.
The Heart of Retail
On a February day just after the snow, Gage-Cole, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, walks into Heart & Sole Shoes, his boutique in the heart of the Mosaic village, the trendiest part of Fort St.’s Antique Row. Snippet, the Parson Russell terrier who is Gage-Cole’s constant companion and official greeter, as it were, leaps up to meet me.
Heart & Sole is located in a building constructed in 1929. Its Tudor exterior has been modernized with rich red replacing the traditional black and white, and arched windows with leaded glass. The original sign, made of solid red cedar, still hangs outside. Inside, there’s original fir flooring. “Eight-inch clear fir,” Gage-Cole says. “My guess, it would cost $50,000 to $70,000 today if you could find it.”
Details like this matter to him. He points out the boutique’s shelves and cases, built by a carpenter he’s known since he started out in business in 1969: “My buddy Zane. Excellent carpenter, and an artist and musician. Instead of a shelf with two coats of erathane, I’ve got four coats of verathane. Artistic shelving.”
And then Gage-Cole throws out a term that weaves through his conversations: Avant garde.
“Ahead of the pack. Setting the pace. Most beautiful store in town. Anybody who doesn’t think so, they’re just jealous.”
Indeed, inside and out, Heart & Sole celebrates beauty, with an aura that’s classy and sassy, quaint and a little bit quirky.
On the shelves are sandals by Birkenstock and Mephisto, Red Wing boots from Minnesota, including the Blacksmith for a cool $380, Glerup woolen slippers from Denmark, Beautifeel shoes from Israel at $400-plus a pair, plus other big names like Wolky, Roma and El Naturalista. There are even floral gumboots.
Then there’s the wearable art: leggings, scarves and beautifully patterned hats from local artisans. There’s also a line of socks called Darn Tough from Vermont. Wear a hole in them and the maker will replace them. Seriously.
“We hunt out quality in our lines and we also hunt out different prices,” says store manager Jennifer Robinson. “So there is really something for everyone in this store, from the $75 mark for a pair of shoes all the way up to and above the $500 range.”
A long-time retail manager, Robinson came to work for Gage-Cole in September 2017.
Gage-Cole says of Robinson and his other staff, “They are my family. If it wasn’t for my staff, I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do.”
He leans over the store counter as he talks. There are two bright green bottles within easy reach. Prosecco. Some nice Italian bubbly to help Robinson celebrate her birthday.
Robinson agrees the store has wonderful staff. “But it takes an amazing boss, an amazing head of the company, and Keith exudes that in a lot of ways,” she says. “He empowers his staff.”
“Keith is a true survivor,” says Robinson. “He might describe himself as a hippie, but he’s a very astute businessman. I will call him … and say, ‘Where are we from this year to last year?’ And he will give me an exact figure with the cents after. He knows where he is at. He’s a no-nonsense guy.”
Gage-Cole also stays in front of the trends, Robinson says. “He has people for that — me!” she laughs.
Robinson goes to shoe trade shows, and Gage-Cole sometimes tags along. He also keeps his eyes open during his frequent trips to Mexico. “He was just down in La Cruz and there are some gorgeous leathers coming in.”
It turns out that Gage-Cole, who knows his leather, got a lead on some quality leather handbags and ordered more than 100 of them, about $30,000 worth.
His eye for quality, along with hard work, superior service, loyal staff, a prime location, an ear for the customers, an eye on the bottom line and a sense for trends are the common threads in our conversations, like the stitching in a sturdy shoe.
But at times the hippie emerges. The morning after our first interview, Gage-Cole meets me over a coffee at Picnic Too, a café next door to Heart & Sole.
“This is deep shit,” he tells me. “Life-saving shit.” And then he tells me of the challenges he faced as a young man growing up in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s.
“What you’re doing,” he tells me, “is an article on a guy with ADD or ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], a guy who had a helluva time at school. I was the class clown. But I wasn’t always funny. I had a record at Oak Bay, [and I was] a chatterbox, kicked out of classes. Teachers told me I was stupid and useless … I thought I was stupid and useless for a long time, because my teachers told me I was — and they’re the authorities, right? But it turns out I’m not stupid. Far from it.”
He jokes that after a bike accident in 2003 led to some cognitive tests, his neuropsychologist told him he was smarter than she was.
During our conversation, Gage-Cole speaks of his philosophies and his wide range of interests. “I’ve educated myself in dozens of things. I’m a history buff. I’m into music and art. I’m an appreciator of poetry.”
Not a bad photographer either. He shows some of his recent photos from Mexico. One, of a margarita with a slice of citrus on the rim, could be in a gallery.
Time to Shine
Gage-Cole says it took him a long time to realize he had a gift: “I have a huge imagination and I’m very creative. I can make something out of nothing.”
He learned to embrace this gift, this unquenchable curiosity. “It became my way of life,” he says. “I call it O.L.S. — Oh, Look, Shiny!”
But back in his teens and 20s, before he started to shine, Gage-Cole didn’t think anyone would ever hire him.
He didn’t come from a wealthy family. He grew up in a blue-collar home in Victoria. His father worked in a sawmill, rising to become a millwright before the mill was sold and he returned to being a labourer.
“From my dad I got a work ethic,” Gage-Cole says. He followed his father into the mill: “It was hard and sweaty, and I loaded wood in a 200-foot furnace and I went home and complained. My dad had that job for the last six years of his career and he never complained once.”
After leaving school, Gage-Cole moved to Vancouver in 1966 with a duffel bag full of food and clothes and soon found a job. And lived in an apartment he describes as a filthy hole.
He finally ended up back in Victoria. And in 1969, he and a friend, Glen Lynch, borrowed a thousand dollars each and used it to start a store called Baggins on Government St., up a long flight of stairs in a building next to what is now the Bard & Banker pub. That’s where they sold those pipes and posters and rolling papers. It took the hippies an effort to get up the 40 steps to buy their tie-dyed shirts, but they made the trek.
Half a century later, the Baggins name is still around, now on a shoe store selling the Converse line on Johnson Street, decidedly not a hippie place. Gage-Cole only lasted a year at the business: “I sold out of Baggins for pretty much nothing, deserted Glen for six months.”
But Glen Lynch is still there in the back, behind all the shelves of shoes, another “old hippie” who has witnessed the rise and fall of many a trend in the B.C. capital. He describes Gage-Cole as “dogged, the same as me. Only way to make it. Got to have determination and realize you can’t make it in anything else, so you better make it in this.”
Lynch says Gage-Cole is someone who’s not afraid to change; he’s moved his business more than a dozen times, changing the name and product lines along the way. It would be much tougher and more expensive to get into the retail market in Victoria today, he admits, and much of what he and his old buddy have learned is, in his words, not transferable.
“He has survived because he’s a local and he knows the market. His gut.”
You mean guts or gut instinct? I ask Lynch. Both, but particularly gut instinct, he says. “He’s got a pretty good opinion of himself,” Lynch adds. “He doesn’t push it in people’s faces, but he is competent.”
Both men will tell you they “didn’t have a clue” about retail when they started out, and that may be why they persisted and prospered.
After leaving Baggins, Gage-Cole learned leather work and tried his hand at making and selling sandals, over the years turning out 5,600 pairs and acquiring the nickname Sandalman.
“I recognized fads that were coming in and out,” he says. “In ‘82 and ‘83, I sold crystal like you wouldn’t believe. Crystal balls, crystal shapes. Then Stanfield’s shirts with beer labels, three buttons. Sold a few thousand of those.”
After some other retail adventures, he finally decided to concentrate on shoes, launching Heart & Sole Shoes in 2008 on Cook St., then four years ago moving around the corner to larger Fort St. quarters, attracting a mostly (but not exclusively) female clientele, with an approach he describes as fashion forward. He’s also a co-owner of Footloose Shoes on the other end of Fort St. with his ex-wife, Kerstin Greiner, although he’s planning to transfer his shares to his daughter, Aleisha Gage-Cole.
There have been some challenges, Gage-Cole admits, such as the conservative tastes of Victorians.
“We would like them to be a little more avant garde,” he says, noting local tastes tend to lag a few years behind those in Europe. He tries to anticipate what will catch on here, but it doesn’t always work out; he remembers importing one line that was about a year too early.
Then there’s the lack of adequate parking. He’s worried about the move by city hall to end free parking on Sundays. There’s also the fact that his shop is not on downtown tourist maps. And there’s the disruption caused by building bike lanes and what he feels is an unsympathetic attitude at city hall.
“I don’t disagree with bike routes,” he adds. “I just disagree with the way they were done. It’s a shit show in the 500 and 600 block of Fort.”
But that’s a rare negative comment from a guy who says he’s not into competition, just co-operation, making friends and staying in touch with the market.
Last fall, Gage-Cole opened another store, Heart & Sole Too, right across Fort St. from Heart & Sole. It specializes in women’s accessories — high-end hosiery, socks, jewelry, scarves — complementing its sister shop.
So what makes him think there’s a market for such a specialized store in Victoria’s competitive retail scene?
“We’re creating a market,” he says. “Ladies’ hosiery. Avant garde.” There’s that term again.
“It’s a store where a woman can come in and be surrounded by feminine things,” says manager Danica Wilcox. “She can get personal service. She can get a pair of stockings and get some really good knowledge.”
Gage-Cole describes it as a place where, “When a woman comes in, she thinks, ‘This is what I deserve,’” he says. “One woman was in the other day and she says, ‘This must be what heaven looks like.’”
Both Wilcox and Gage-Cole are passionate about offering customers a positive experience, helping them find what they want, and keeping them for the long term, not just taking their money.
“You have to be friendly,” Gage-Cole says. “[Our customers] have to feel that they have something when they leave. ‘No’ is not an answer. They’ll never come back again.”
It’s a philosophy that seems to be working at both stores.
“This would be my style,” says Jayalinda Cole, a customer from Saltspring, standing in Heart & Sole and holding up a flashy red shoe highlighted with a rose. “I would like to have a place to wear these. They’re outrageous and they are very passionate … It’s inspirational. One of a kind, too.”
An inspirational shoe store? Exactly the sort of comment the “old hippie” probably
likes to hear — and one he can file away for future use as any smart entrepreneur would do.
This article is from the April/May 2019 issue of Douglas.