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This article was originally published on Nov. 20, 2014. Click the link to see the story with more photos.
By Oliver Lazenby
The Bellingham Business Journal
At 40 years old, Steve Roguski had been a lot of things. He had delivered pizza, been a cartographer, taught middle school geography, and worked on the navigation systems of F-15 jets in the Air Force.
He liked those jobs, but he hadn’t found what he was supposed to do with his life, he said.
He knew, however, where he wanted to live. Roguski discovered Fairhaven while traveling between one teaching job in Florida and another in Alaska.
“I just thought, ‘gosh everyone in the world should be here, this is incredible,’” Roguski said. “I moved here because it was so beautiful.”
In Fairhaven, Roguski substitute taught, but he wasn’t satisfied with the job.
Then one day in the middle of January, when substituting gigs were sparse, Roguski decided it was time to figure out what to do for a career. He gave himself two weeks to go on a “retreat” in his Fairhaven apartment. At the end of the two weeks, he would decide what to do with his life.
It only took one week.
“I wrote down on a piece of paper, ‘I will own a community oriented running store in Fairhaven,’” he said. “I put it up on the fridge and I was like, ‘OK, that’s it. That’s the ultimate.’”
Fifteen years later, “community oriented” defines Fairhaven Runners & Walkers, Roguski’s store at 1209 11th St., in Fairhaven. Customers come not only to browse through 200 pairs of shoes, but also to meet up for weekly group runs led by paid employees, to participate in running form and injury prevention clinics, and for dozens of other monthly events.
And in a market with competition from big-box stores and online retailers, Roguski’s emphasis on community may be why he’s still in business.
That’s what Tom Dorr thinks. Dorr worked with Roguski as a consultant when Roguski was starting Fairhaven Runners and Dorr was director of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center.
“There are a few companies in town that have been able to transcend just the transactional relationship with their clients. Does it translate to more sales? Absolutely it does,” Dorr said. “Those customers become referral sources, recommenders, almost evangelists. Without that, Fairhaven Runners wouldn’t be here. I would go so far as to say that.”
When customers arrive at the store’s shoe section, they usually don’t just pick out a shoe and ask for it in their size, Roguski said. Instead, they go through a fitting process.
“Typically people come in with their old shoes and go, ‘OK, I’m ready,’” he said. “They know we’ll take them through the whole process.”
The process can take up to half an hour. Fairhaven Runners staff look at wear patterns on customers’ old shoes. They also discuss the customers’ past injuries and how they plan to use their shoe. They also observe the way their customers’ legs and feet move while they run or walk.
“We want customers to come away with the best shoe they’ve ever had. It’s not just throwing darts at a wall and hoping that it’s right,” Roguski said. “We’re trying to make this experience the best it can be.”
The service that Fairhaven Runners provides doesn’t always revolve around shoes or clothing, Roguski said. They also help customers create training plans, figure out how to avoid blisters, or point them toward local trails, Roguski said.
Most of the 10 or so employees at Fairhaven Runners only work there for two to four years, Roguski said. But it’s important to Roguski that his employees “live the running lifestyle.” Craig Bartlett, store manager, has been there since the beginning. Roguski’s wife Genevie, an accomplished runner who won state titles in college, has worked full-time at the store for eight years.
During the last 15 years, Roguski has worked to change the perception that the store is just for elite runners. It’s a place for anyone with feet, he said, and especially people with specific issues. One day last month he helped a tennis player find a better fitting shoe.
“Every person who walks in the door is treated kind of like family. That’s hard to do.” Dorr said. “I don’t even run and I buy my shoes there. It’s a sense of community and I love the customer service.”
Dorr no longer works at the Small Business Development Center, but he continues to work with Roguski as a consultant. He has seen Roguski get better at managing inventory, and hiring the right people over the years, he said.
But Roguski also learned the business fast, Dorr said.
After sticking his new mission to his fridge, Roguski went to a two-day business workshop at Whatcom Community College, and then got a job at a shoe store downtown called Foot Zone.
He had little retail experience, but he found out he enjoyed it.
“I was good with customers,” Roguski said. “It seemed to be easy and fluid for me.”
Two months later the owner of Foot Zone decided to close theshop, and offered the business to Roguski, who declined the offer.
Roguski wanted his running store to be different from Foot Zone—he wanted to carry specialty items like racing flats and cross country spikes for track and field. And he wanted his employees to be running fanatics like him.
Roguski has been a runner for his whole life and he runs and races distances from 5k to 50k.
With experience in a running store and a clear vision for his store, Roguski made a business plan. Consultants and other business owners liked his plan, Roguski said, but he couldn’t get a loan.
A friend in the Greater Bellingham Running Club told Roguski that Paul Williams, owner of Peninsula Runners in White Rock, B.C., may want to invest in a running store. Williams liked Roguski’s business plan. They checked out an open storefront in Fairhaven that Roguski had his eye on. Days later, they had paid a deposit on the space and named the business.
Roguski opened the store two months later, on July 1, less than six months after sticking the mission to his fridge. Two years after that, he bought the business from Williams.
Now, at 56, Roguski said his job at the running store is the ultimate career he imagined 16 years ago.
On a Tuesday night in October, 25 people gathered inside the store for a group run through Boulevard Park. The group included at least one married couple who met at the store. Roguski himself met his wife Genevie Roguski, an accomplished local runner, through the store.
Nearly all the runners at the store were regulars at the Tuesday night runs. A smiling Steve Roguski walked through the crowded store to shake hands with the one newcomer in the group.