From stock boy to entrepreneur: Glebe Trotters’s Paul Shields finds the right fit

Paul Shields
Paul Shields is the owner of Glebe Trotters.

From stockboy to store owner, Paul Shields has slowly and steadily built one of the most successful independent shoe retailers around, and he’s done it through hard work and hustle.

It’s common to find Glebe Trotters crowded with customers at its 860 Bank St. location, in Ottawa’s affluent Glebe district. Friendly young staff can be seen hauling out armloads of shoe boxes from the back storage room while Mr. Shields, 58, bounces around the shop like caffeine personified. He’s so full of energy that he rarely ever sits in his backroom office, except to share his story of how he got into selling shoes in the first place.

“If you can’t dazzle, wear ‘em down,” he says, quoting American funnyman Drew Carey to explain the secret of his success: perseverance.

Last year was Glebe Trotters’ best year since it first opened its door in March 1994. Is it because nearby Lansdowne is drawing more crowds to the area? It probably has boosted the store’s street visibility, but Glebe Trotters’ second-most profitable year was before the Lansdowne redevelopment.

The more likely hero is Blundstone, a versatile leather boot that improves seems to aesthetically improve with age. Glebe Trotters peddles 2,000-plus pairs a year, more than any other small business store in Canada.

Glebe Trotters keeps every pair, colour and size and gets new shipments each week. The store started carrying Blundstones in the late 1990s but it wasn’t until a few years ago that sales really took off.

“Before, you could have left two cartons full of them in a sorority house and nobody would have touched them. Then – boom – all of a sudden they became the thing,” says Mr. Shields.

The shop also carries a wide range of other medium- to high-end lines, including Clarks, Hush Puppies, Ecco, Josef Seibel, Mjus, El Naturalista, Bueno and A.S.98.

Glebe Trotters has also benefited from the “tremendous loyalty” of customers from Glebe and Old Ottawa South, said Mr. Shields.

Shoestring budget

Mr. Shields’ first job in the industry was in 1976 as a part-time stock boy at the former Bally store at 146 Sparks St. He worked at the high-end shoe store while studying marketing at Algonquin College. He rose to assistant manager.

What lured Mr. Shields into the business for good was the exciting debut of the Rideau Centre in 1983. Bally wanted him to run its new store on the third floor of the busy downtown shopping mall. It offered him an irresistible salary of $50,000-plus.

Says Mr. Shields: “How do you turn that down when you’re 24?” You don’t.

Mr. Shields’ career with Bally lasted 17 years. He was the regional supervisor when the company sold the three Ottawa stores to another company. It declared bankruptcy within a year.

There were no severance packages or buyouts. Mr. Shields was out of a job and had nothing but his musings, made over beers with former Bally store manager Alan Yakibchuk, to start a superior shoe store of their own.

As they say in the biz, the shoe must go on. The two men headed every Sunday morning to the Stittsville Flea Market to sell footwear. They regularly drove out to Perth’s former Brown Shoe Co. factory to purchase its end-of-the-line shoes to sell at the market.

“They’re shoe people. They’re grounded. They’re genuine.”

They wanted storefront, either in the ByWard Market or Glebe. They opted for the latter and set up shop on Bank Street, just south of Fifth Avenue. It was a quiet block that saw few passersby in those days before Kettleman’s Bagels Co. and sold-out RedBlacks games.

They ran the place with no staff and, you might say, on a shoestring budget. They worked long hours, splitting between them what little profits they earned. Even on the slowest nights, they kept the doors open for business.

So lean were those early years that the owners would, on occasion, pop a cheque in the mail to their suppliers, knowing they had insufficient funds. They anxiously anticipated that the money would be in their account by the time the cheque got cashed the following week.

They’d also trick potential purchasers into thinking business was booming by creating a messy scene of shoes and boxes in the store.

“Phew! You just missed the rush,” they would tell their first customer of the day as they entered.

During this period, Mr. Shields was also starting a family with his wife, Madelyn Cochrane, who teaches at Cégep Heritage College and runs her own financial consulting firm. They have three sons: 25-year-old Owen, who works at the store; Wade, 23; and Drew, 19.

Mr. Shields bought his partner out after Mr. Yakibchuk decided to join his spouse in retirement. That was five years ago, which is when Shields last missed work due to illness.

“If you can’t get sick, you don’t get sick,” he explains.

Running a store is tough, Mr. Shields opines. Taxes and rent are high. There are parking and staffing issues to deal with and online retail to compete against. But, Mr. Shields enjoys working with the public and with his staff of six. He’s also fond of his peers in the industry.

“We know who we are,” says Mr. Shields. “No one is bigger than they think they are. They’re shoe people. They’re grounded. They’re genuine.

“We serve a purpose that, admittedly, isn’t changing lives but it’s about about making a person’s day a little more uplifting. Everyone could use more of that, I feel.”

Five things to know about Paul Shields

  1. Mr. Shields grew up in the Elmvale Acres area and attended Canterbury High School while staying highly involved in sports, including hockey, baseball and gymnastics. He remains best friends with the same buddies he made as a kid.

  2. He’s a fan of the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. He’s even got a collection of vinyl figures. It includes The Dude.

  3. During the store’s downtime, the staff has been known to have fun by shooting each other with toy Nerf Guns.

  4. Mr. Shields’ favourite sports team is the Kansas City Royals.

  5. On his store’s best days, it’s rung up more than $2,000 in sales from a customer. On his store’s worst days, it had two zero-sales days in the same week (that was back when the store first opened).