Randy Brewer, a veteran retail buyer, founded Convert in Berkeley, California in 2010. The store has two locations, both on 4th Street: a 1,800-sq.-foot (167-sq.-meter) clothing store and a 1,100-sq.-foot (102-sq.-meter) shoe store just a few doors up the road. Both carry an array of brands for men, women, and children. Convert’s eco-chic approach has introduced the vegan Jeffery Campbell shoe collaboration and a more recently a repurposed leather project with J Shoes. US contributor Rudy Gonzales recently spoke with Brewer to delve into his 23 years of buying experience and his secret to running a successful, sustainable business. Interview by Rudy Gonzales

What inspired you to get into retail and open Convert?
I have been in retail since 1984. I kind of fell into it as a part time job during college and just loved the whole process. When it came time to open my own store I wanted to do something that would inspire and reinvigorate me so decided to focus on sustainability, which was already an important part of my life.

What are some of your current bestsellers brandwise and itemwise?
Bestselling brands include Toms, Melissa, Prairie Underground, Jeffrey Campbell (our vegan product), Timberland, Westonwear, Tellason and AG. Items include Jeffrey Campbell woven boots, Prairie Underground leggings, Timberland Boot Company chukkas, Tellason tapered selvedge denim and AG chinos.

Have you been surprised by the sales performance of any particular item or brand?
I was pleasantly surprised by the great response to our Melissa shoes, which are recyclable plastic. We started with one style and now carry just about the entire line.

Convert ist 'definitely the only store with a sustainable story' in its area, says Brewer.
Convert ist 'definitely the only store with a sustainable story' in its area, says Brewer.

Who is your typical customer?
I wish there was an easy answer here but the fact is it’s split down the middle between men’s and women’s, catering to every age from 1 to 90 and every taste from fashion-forward to conservative. The only typical thing is their willingness to take a chance and try something new we recommend. That’s the most fun part of the job.

How does the store compare to other shops in the area? What sets Convert apart?
There are other clothing stores on Berkeley's 4th Street but we are the only store that carries menswear and definitely the only store with a sustainable story.
We are in an upscale shopping area that focuses on small boutiques, which gives the area a unique flavor. A couple of big chains stores are peppered in but on the whole it doesn’t feel like just another retail area.

Convert store 'was opened using lots of found items, mostly from the flea market.'
Convert store 'was opened using lots of found items, mostly from the flea market.'

What has been the biggest challenge of having the store thus far?
There are always new challenges! The biggest was getting customers to notice us and add us to their “go to” list when coming to 4th Street. I can’t tell you how many customers still come in and ask if we just opened and we’ve been here almost four years! I think overall we’ve succeeded pretty well in becoming a staple on the street.

How do you find new brands and merchandise?
Since I’ve been in the business so long I have lots of great contacts and friends in the business who are always letting me know about new brands they acquire. I also attend lots of shows and am always looking for lines that look amazing and fit our sustainable requirements. If I find a great looking line that isn’t sustainable I will try to have a chat with them about making some minor adjustments to make their product a little more eco-friendly. I’m not always successful but you can't blame a guy for trying.

Tell us about the stores’ decor.
Our clothing store was opened using lots of found items, mostly from local flea markets. Our racks and shelves were handmade locally, which is important to us. We have a chandelier in back of the store and a hearth in the front, to kind of balance the fancy and the homey. We want customers to feel totally at home here but know they are going to leave looking fabulous. For the shoe store we had our shelves laser cut from recycled cardboard, as well as our cash wrap. We were a little wary of the material but it turned out to be great looking and surprisingly sturdy.

'Our racks and shelves were handmade locally', says Brewer.
'Our racks and shelves were handmade locally', says Brewer.

What special services does Convert offer customers?
We have a deal with a local tailor to do same day alterations for no extra cost, which the customers really like. We also have customer lists and inform them when product comes in we think they’ll like. Convert also hosts lots of events, trunk shows and designer showcases. We just had a Made in California event that was a big success.

What are two or three rules that every retailer always needs to follow?
1) Make sure you hire employees that are passionate about their jobs and really enjoy being a part of your company.
2) Make sure your customer feels like the most important person on Earth when they walk in your door.
3) Always tell the customer the truth. Know how to fit them properly. You want them to actually wear what they buy!

What fashion trend, brand or specific piece are you excited to carry for the spring 2014 season?
I am excited about the collaborations we have coming up. Our ongoing vegan collection with Jeffrey Campbell; a shirt collaboration with Crate, produced locally; a collection with J Shoes featuring repurposed leathers. Also loving the allover prints on wovens–playful and unique.

Store's Address:

Convert/Convert Shoes
1809B 4th Street/1844 4th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
+1 510 649 9759
+1 510 984 0142