Baggins is a shoe store in Downtown Victoria on lower Johnson Street that carries unique styles in five main brands: Converse, Vans, Dr. Martens, Herschel, and Stance socks. They also have an extensive online store, as well as a custom print shop based in Downtown Victoria. We sat down with one of Baggins’s co-owners, Tara Savrtka, to learn more about the history and passion that makes Baggins as amazing as it is today.
What does Baggins provide and what’s the mission behind it?
“Baggins is the largest retailer of Converse and Vans in the world. Our mission is to offer unique styles in affordable, sustainable footwear options for everyone from the age of newborn to ninety years old. We really aim to make sure we offer something for everybody.”
What is the history behind Baggins?
“The business started in 1969. Glen Lynch, who is my business partner, is the original owner. He started Baggins not as a shoe store; he actually wanted to sell black lights during sort of the height of hippieness.”
Tara explains that Glenn really wanted to sell black lights, but the only way they would let him is if he owned a storefront. So, he decided he would rent a space on Government street for $25 a week. It was down from $50 if he swept the stairs every night.
“That was the way he was able to get in black lights to start selling those to people, because he knew that if he wanted them, other people did too.”
Then it progressed into the 1980s and he sold clothing imported from India. Glen moved Baggins to Market Square, was there for quite a few years, and then through the mid-1990s he was approached by somebody who sold Converse.
“He wore them as a kid in gym class. He was born in 1949, so that was the prime time for Converse as your typical gym shoe. And he really had a nostalgic feeling for them, so he, once again, identified that if he had a feeling for nostalgia for them, other people would as well. And that just happened to also be the height of grunge, which really helped.”
Glen and the team at Baggins did so well with selling Converse that they stopped selling clothing altogether. Vans came along about 10 years later.
“We introduced Dr. Martins about five years ago. That was a new addition, sort of one of my babies–I’m very much a Docs fan. But we wanted to introduce a brand that was something different from what we had, but that still had the same sort of vibe and company goals as us. And we really felt like Dr. Martins was the one to fill that void. We’re very happy we did that.”
Baggins has been at its current location on lower Johnson Street for the past eight years, while Tara has been with the company for nine. She and her husband, who are now co-owners, plan to take Baggins past 2022 and into the future as Glen eventually retires.
How did you personally become involved with Baggins in the first place?
“I shopped at Baggins as a teenager, like most Victorians have. I was familiar with the store. I worked in shoes prior to starting Baggins and I was a manager for four years at Payless shoes. I was in the process of doing my degree at school, and realized that I wasn’t meant for corporate environments. I wasn’t the type of person who enjoyed being restricted in what I was allowed to do or wear.”
When Tara finished her degree in Germanic studies (which she values although it has nothing to do with retail, especially because it taught her new languages which she can use to speak with tourists) she started looking for jobs. Baggins had posted an assistant manager role, and Tara had an interview with Glen’s senior person at the time.
“I didn’t hear back for quite a few weeks, so I was like, oh maybe I didn’t get the job, that’s too bad. I really liked it and I thought it would be really cool.”
Tara got a phone call a few weeks later from Glen saying he wanted to hire her.
“When I started there, there were five employees, including Glen, my superior, me as the assistant manager, and two associates. We’re up to 15 people now, between our different departments (the retail shop, online store, and custom printing), and in the summer, we can have up to 25 people.”
“We’ve really tried to create an environment that is inviting. I got involved because I felt like it was somewhere I could really show who I was, and use what I was passionate about in a way that was going to help myself, the business, and the customers.”
Tara explains that she likes to challenge herself and one of the problems with her previous job is that in a corporate environment, there wasn’t a lot of room for growth. In her current role at Baggins, she likes being able to work for herself and recognize when she needs a mental health day, as well as being able to make decisions that help the staff.
“We try to create an environment for everybody, that is friendly and is diverse and inclusive, so that nobody doesn’t want to be here.”
How do you think Baggins positively impacts the community?
“We, as a company, have always been of the mindset that our employees are number one and that our community is the reason we’re successful. Every year, we sit down as a group and decide charities and things we want to be involved in. Every Christmas we donate to the Mustard Seed, and as a block here on lower Johnson, we have a group that gets together to cohesively work together and decide on different groups that we can support as a community.”
Tara explains that creating a sense of community with their shop and Greater Victoria is important because if one retailer is struggling, they want to be able to support them in different ways. Baggins makes posts about other stores in their area having a sale, and shares Think Local community highlights.
“Then, for the employees, it’s just making sure that we’re listening to their concerns and listening to what didn’t work for them in past jobs. If they’re struggling with something, we listen to that struggle and actually find a way to help them. Because ultimately, we want people to be happy and have fun when they’re at work; we don’t want work to be an anxiety-driven situation for anybody.”
“And then, we work with as many local groups as we can. For example, we work with sports teams in town and we’ll do any sort of community involvement relating to that if we can. We’re really trying to create a good environment and sense of community, both with just our immediate block and the immediate team.”
“And then also being around for as long as we have I think has really helped. Because somebody who shopped with us twenty, thirty years ago may have left and now has come back and is rediscovering that sense of community, and being able to build those relationships with people is really important as well.”
Tara also highlights that an important aspect of their community work is supporting local artists through custom printing:
“Especially Indigenous art is really important to us, and obviously the culture climate of the last two years surrounding Black Lives Matter. We love finding people who have a passion for it, but then also being able to support it through printable art, as well, is a key part. We’re in the process of growing that more and more, and it’s something we’re excited about–getting to dive deep and creating little pockets of artists that we work with, while reaching different groups of people through that artwork as well.”
Are there any qualities you look for when you’re hiring at Baggins?
“We’re looking for somebody who is pretty-easygoing, but we also want somebody who’s going to stand on their own. Uniqueness is really important to me and the business because so many different types of people come in here.”
For instance, Tara explains that she was a “typical goth teenager” with makeup, black hair, and intense piercings and clothing. She says that there’s not many places where an employer is going to let you express yourself through your appearance, such as through dyed hair or tattoos, but Baggins is one of them.
“Usually you’re tailoring yourself to fit the business, whereas we want the business to fit the people. We’re diverse ages, we’re diverse backgrounds, we’re diverse groups of people who come from different areas of life. So we really look for that uniqueness when we’re hiring somebody–obviously that’s not the end all, be all, and you don’t have to be alternative in any way–but we’re looking for people so that customers are going to be able to identify with someone when they walk in the door.”
Tara also says that they aim to be supportive of their staff, which is something she struggled with at previous jobs. She felt like she couldn’t always say something to senior staff or actually see changes happen, so she strives to make Baggins employees feel safe, heard, and supported.
“Through COVID, we really worked to make sure that, because our employees are on the frontline, they’re being supported as much as they possibly can be. Because ultimately, while I’m a part owner and not in the store everyday, the people who are in-store are more at risk of all the things going on. So we’re making sure that we support our staff and that they feel like they can come to work and are getting what they need.”
From a hiring standpoint, Tara explains that they’re looking for somebody who has some personality and is fun and inviting.
“We’re totally open to different types of people and we actually, like I said, encourage that. We just want people to be comfortable…when you’re coming in, you want to be here and we want you to be here.”
Do you have any favorite customer stories, or unique, funny, stand-out moments that make Baggins what it is?
“I think for me it’s when we have somebody come in and say ‘I was here two years ago when I was travelling, and I told my friend about it and said that if we go back, this is the place we have to come back to.’ I really enjoy those stories. I’m also noticing a lot of people saying things like they shopped here when they were fifteen, and now they’re twenty-five and want to shop here again. So we’re creating that sense of nostalgia around the idea of what Baggins is.”
Tara also explains that their print shop gets a lot of interesting print requests for their Converse and Vans custom printing service.
“My favourite story is that one of our print techs, for his bachelor party, printed his face on shoes and made all the groomsmen wear them while they were out partying. Which I thought was hilarious. Glen also jokes that for Christmas he’s going to give everybody shoes with his face on them, like that’s his Christmas gift to all of us.”
“I also love that with the print shop, we get a lot of pets. People will bring in photos of pets that have passed away and they’re trying to create a memory of that. It’s really important and cool to see.”
If someone has never heard about Baggins before, what’s one thing you wish you could tell them?
“You’re never going to find something like this anywhere else.”
Tara explains that thanks to the brands Baggins carries, she’s been able to travel and see the Dr. Martins factory in England, flagship stores in Europe, and even the Converse head office in Boston. What this has revealed to her, is that the space Baggins has carved out in Victoria truly is unique to any other place in the world.
“When the person who is in charge of worldwide sales and production at Converse says ‘there is no store like yours,’ then you know you have something unique. We have people come in and say, ‘wow I didn’t know this many colours were offered’ and I go, ‘this is only a small portion of what I could’ve bought.’ They offer 300 different colours and every year I have to narrow it down to twenty.”
Tara also loves that they are able to offer unique styles, such as pride collections and special collabs being offered like Spongebob Vans.
“You’re not going to get that sort of stuff in a mall. You can go to Footlocker or Journey’s shoes and get the staples, which is great, but here you’re going to find what really does represent you, and you’re never going to find another store with this many things or this many of the brand represented here.”
The flip side of this, Tara explains, is that, because they only carry five brands (Converse, Vans, Dr. Martins, Herschel, and Stance socks), they tend to sometimes know more than the brands know because they’ve been stocking them for so long.
“Part of the corporate environment is that people leave all the time. For example, the president of Converse has only been there for a couple years, whereas we’ve been open for 25 years. So we have a lot of information that they might not even realize is in their archives.”
Baggins even gave a start to a well-known brand today, Herschel:
“The owner of Herschel used to be our Vans rep, so we were the first store to carry Herschel, because he would just bring those products around with him as he sold Vans shoes. And we’d be like ‘oh, we like this backpack, can we sell it?’ Now it’s one of the biggest companies in the world. To think that we were there when he was in his garage selling them by hand. So the fact that we’ve been a part of these brands and able to work with them for so long, you’re not going to find that anywhere else.”
In terms of expanding to new locations, Baggins still has its heart set in Victoria.
“We choose to be here, and we’ve talked about the idea of trying to recreate it somewhere else, but without time, it’s not a possibility. So the next best thing is online and encouraging people to come visit. And with the print shop, we’re one of just two businesses that do that in North America.
Finally, is there any special ingredient to keeping Baggins as amazing as it is?
“Glen is definitely a huge part of it. I get emotional talking about it, because he’s so great. If he had not put in the work, I would not have a job. It’s recognizing that this little store has a person behind it. It’s not just some guy in an office somewhere, it’s somebody who put years of their life into it.”