Talking Shop: Brian Davis of Wooden Sleepers
Interview by Will Halbert
Photography by Ritchie Jo Espenilla
There’s a chapter in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in which the author – holed up in a recently-vacated and as-yet unmade hotel room in Chicago – tries to piece together the story of the room’s former occupier. He paints a mental picture of the stranger’s life using the half-smoked cigarettes, half-drank highballs, and half-penned letters he’s left behind.
I’m of the opinion that a good vintage store lets you play that same deductive game on a grander scale. A good vintage store, after all, tells a tale of times and trends gone by. To browse a good vintage store is to retrace an entire generation’s hopes, fears, frustrations, and celebrations. A good vintage store revels in the long-lost narratives forever woven into each and every found fabric, frayed thread, and pre-loved garment.
Wooden Sleepers is, by any conceivable metric, a good vintage store. Its owner, Brian Davis, is a very good shopkeeper. Not content with simply being a purveyor of the well-made, the well-worn, and the well-travelled; Brian is a curator in the truest, purest sense of the word. He’s also a lovely dude to simply sit down and chew the fat with. There’s ample proof of that below, if you care to read on.
Firstly and most importantly, it’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? How are you doing?
I’m ok, all things considered. Of course, I’ve missed seeing my friends and family, going to shows, restaurants, movie theaters, etc., like everyone else. Overall though, quarantine life suited me. I got to spend time with my wife and our two-year-old daughter, which is amazing. I cooked, exercised, listened to music, read, and was fortunate enough to be able to run my business from my nearby studio/showroom. Life has become simpler, more focused on what’s most important. Fewer distractions I suppose.
I know you probably get asked this a bunch, but how did you get here? What kicked off your fascination with vintage in the first place?
To me, vintage clothing embodies the idea of individualism, since no two pieces of vintage are ever the same. As a person coming of age in a small town in the early ’90s, I was obsessed with skateboarding, punk/hardcore music, and hip-hop. My style was very influenced by those subcultures and was a way for me to express myself. From the first time I ever visited a thrift store, I was hooked. I must have only been 13 or 14 years old, scouring for graphic t-shirts, flannels, old jeans, etc. The whole experience was exhilarating.
What is it about vintage in general that continues to fascinate people so much?
It’s the thrill of the hunt. Having something rare, something no one else has. Something unique. The feel of fabric. A certain color or natural fade. The details – an old zipper or woven label. Also, people today are starting to recognize the environmental impacts of fast fashion, so secondhand or vintage clothing that was stigmatized in the past is now gaining more mainstream enthusiasm from people who may not have ever considered it before.
How does it feel to have been able to turn a passion into a livelihood?
Wooden Sleepers is the thing I am most proud of. With that said, running a small business is hard. There’s a lot of ups and downs. Anxiety, depression, and stress are always waiting in the wings. At the end of the day, I didn’t want the story to be, “I had this idea, this dream that I never pursued.” I wanted the story to be, “I had a dream of running my own business and even if it fails – I gave it everything I had.” Thank God I have a wife who told me not to give up on my worst days, pivot when needed, and keep pushing.
Last year, you closed up the bricks and mortar and moved things online. How challenging has it been to navigate that shift?
I consider myself very lucky to be in a business that could exist solely online. For restaurants, music venues, barbers, tattoo artists, and pretty much the entire service industry, this was not the case. Since I already had an online shop, it was relatively easy for me to pivot to a fully online model. With that said, e-commerce and physical retail are very different beasts. Being a shopkeeper really suited me, it felt completely natural and was something I enjoyed. On top of that, it was our primary revenue source. Running an online shop is very different. I’m learning as I go. The bright side is still being able to connect with our customers and grow the business, albeit in a different way than I originally intended.
On a similar note, I guess, how have the likes of Instagram and other social media impacted your business over the years? Has it been a useful tool?
My business would look very different without Instagram. I won’t say that it couldn’t exist, but it’s hard to imagine without it. People from all over the world have discovered Wooden Sleepers through Instagram. Some of them actually made a point to visit while they were in NYC – this still blows my mind. Wooden Sleepers started in 2010, the same year Instagram started, and I used it from the very beginning. Now there are more business-friendly features like tap to shop, swiping up in stories, etc. which I love, but that probably drive some people mad.
Wooden Sleepers has always been more than a store; it’s a living, breathing archive of sorts. Who’s the craziest person that’s ever come through your doors asking for your expert advice?
We certainly had our fair share of celebrity customers over the years, but they tended to be more low-key. Guys like Mahershala Ali, John Slattery, Rupert Friend, etc. The most genuinely surprising guests were Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, it was like watching Superbad in real life! Aside from celebrities, it was always cool to welcome designers to the shop because they seemed to find real value and inspiration there.
Are there any great finds from over the years that you’re particularly proud of? By the same token, are there any grail pieces or ‘ones that got away’ that still haunt your dreams to this day?
Too many to name! It’s fun to look back on certain pieces that I was able to score under the radar before there was a ton of interest. For example, I got my Brown’s Beach Jacket on Etsy in maybe 2014 for like $200. In terms of ‘ones that got away,’ I’m a born retailer, so I actually enjoy serving my customers. Seeing someone really freak over a piece that is just perfect for them really makes me happy. No regrets in that department.
Buying vintage is always a good idea, but can you think of any particular garments that are categorically better when bought vintage?
I love vintage, but I am more interested in well-made things. To me, there’s nothing better than buying the best you can afford and wearing it to death. I mix a lot of new pieces with my vintage. There’s a sentiment that ‘things aren’t made the way they used to be.’ There are exceptions to this obviously – like a pair of Alden loafers, for example. What you get with vintage is something unique, though; a style that may not exist anymore. You also get tremendous value. A vintage L.L. Bean chamois shirt costs less than a new one, but is super soft from years of wear, fits better, and maybe comes in a color that they don’t make anymore.
What styles influenced you growing up? And how would you define your own style as it stands today?
Early on, my biggest style influences were Kurt Cobain, “Doggystyle”-era Snoop Dogg, and Thrasher Magazine. Nowadays, I like to think I am the best advertisement for Wooden Sleepers, so I would define my style as a greatest hits of American menswear – vintage military, Ivy, outdoors, and workwear, mixed up in my own way.
And last but not least, how are you feeling about the rest of 2021?
In a word? Optimistic!
Check out more from Wooden Sleepers here.