A Step Above
Steve Jamison’s Path to Becoming One of the Premier Shoe Retailers in the U.S.
How did a poor kid from North Philly grow up to become one of the world’s premier purveyors of luxury Italian and European footwear? Like many success stories, it took a lot of hard work, tenacity, risk and luck. As a child eating “government cheese” in the Nicetown-Tioga section, one of the notoriously roughest neighborhoods in the city, not in his wildest dreams did Steve Jamison think he’d be outfitting the most well-heeled gentlemen of Philadelphia with Roberto Cavalli, Magnanni and Alessandro Dell’Acqua footwear from his very own shoe boutique, Blue Sole Shoes. His adult life is quite a stark contrast to his childhood, to say the least. “As a kid, I remember seeing gang fights and being hungry a lot of the time. Often times I’d open the fridge and find nothing but a pitcher of Kool-Aid. But, we learned to be resourceful by making mayonnaise sandwiches and syrup sandwiches. We did what we had to do to get by.”
From such humble beginnings, Jamison is now the meticulous owner of one of the swankiest men’s shoe stores in the heart of Philadelphia’s busiest retail corridor. Blue Sole Shoes is THE destination for fine men’s footwear in The City of Brotherly Love, with a serious emphasis on customer service. “I’m just intensely focused on serving people when they enter my business.” He says many shoppers are shocked to learn that Jamison, an African-American man, is the owner, and not an employee. Overcoming the usual stereotypes when you’re a minority entrepreneur is just par for the course, he said. “I just let negative individuals that I encounter get over any issues they have and move on with providing impeccable service.” That attitude, an incredible eye for style and fashion, along with keen business instincts has allowed Jamison to build what has become more than just a shoe store — a warm and friendly sanctuary filled with camaraderie, conversation and cultural diversity. It’s also turned him into an award-winning success story. Jamison’s expertise in men’s footwear earned him the MICAM Award for “Best Italian Foreign Buyer” in 2015 (MICAM is the leading international footwear forum, held in Milan, and promoted by ASSOCALZATURIFICI ITALIANI — the Association of Italian Footwear Manufacturers). The prestigious international business prize is awarded by MICAM exhibitors to buyers who demonstrate the greatest appreciation for the excellence of Italian-made footwear, and their work in promoting it worldwide. “It means you have to buy a lot of stuff,” said Jamison with a laugh. “You have to have a stellar reputation throughout the industry.” Jamison’s clientele includes locally-based professional athletes, A-list celebrities who swing through Philadelphia, including entertainer Steve Harvey, whom Jamison considers a mentor. “There are some famous figures who I try to model my behavior after, including Steve, who is a big inspiration for me because of his incredible work ethic. He’s also a really great customer.”
But becoming a successful minority business owner was no small “feat.” “It only took 33 years,” he jokes. Jamison first started in retail at the age of 17, working part-time at a sneaker store after school. After attending the University of Pittsburgh in 1989, he intended to go on to Miami to become a bilingual criminal defense attorney, but instead he ended up taking a detour, jumping right back into retail and never looking back, working for notable Philadelphia clothier Wayne Edwards/Strega and then prominent Philly shoe retailer Bottino, where he held a number of responsibilities and job titles, including sales associate, assistant buyer and assistant manager.
“I literally fell in love with helping people immediately, and I still love it today,” said Jamison. “I’ve always loved shoes — the designs, the details and workmanship, and the reaction that customers have when they put on a new pair of shoes. I achieve a serious high when I witness how they feel and how it transforms their mood and their style on the spot. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon.”
In February of 2007, after finally saving enough money to open his own boutique, Jamison opened Blue Sole Shoes at 1805 Chestnut Street, then, a still developing retail shopping district in Philadelphia, which is now booming and home to national retailers and high-end dining destinations. But in February of 2007, opening the boutique was a huge gamble. Jamison put everything on the line to go after his dream. He financed his store with credit cards, and took out a $120,000 home equity loan and risked his house and everything he owned to open the store.
“Heck yea it was scary,” exclaimed Jamison. “I knew that if the store failed I would lose my house, and maybe everything I’ve worked for all my life. My wife was very supportive, though, and she knew going into it that we were risking everything, but she also had a great appreciation for what we were doing and the utmost trust in me. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from her. Her support greatly helped me get where I am today.”
Jamison’s Blue Sole Shoes is in the midst of its second expansion — a renovation which has seen the boutique grow in size and space, and gaining a stunning new façade with a massive picture window which will expose passersby to his incredible inventory. “We’re getting busier, so we have to grow larger,” he said. “When I opened, I only had a few shelves with shoes spread out to make it look fuller, but now, we have so much more and everything is packed in tight. And we now sell socks, belts, bags, accessories and attaches.” This is just the beginning of Jamison’s expansion plans, as the inspired retailer plans to eventually scout new locations for a second boutique as his brand continues to grow. “I love being a business owner,” he said. “I flat out love it! I love what I do when I’m here, what I do before I arrive in the store, what I do when I leave, and I seriously enjoy providing my clientele with merchandise that helps them look like a million bucks. I adore the shoes, the artistry, and all of the aspects of fashion — putting together an entire outfit from the shoes to the socks to the belt to everything else makes me feel great. There’s no question that this is what I was meant to do. This is my life’s work!”
At home, Jamison is a husband and a father to a teenage daughter. He says he strives to be a role model for others: for a younger generation of African-Americans who dare to dream big and run their own businesses. “They have to understand that you don’t have to settle, but you do have to put in the serious time and hard work it takes to gain the insight and instincts it takes to run your own business,” said Jamison. “I also know for a fact that there isn’t a great representation of African-Americans in my field, and for me, it’s important for me to step up and champion that cause. I view my store not just as a destination for the style-conscious consumer to buy exclusive footwear, but as a place of inspiration for my customers, my staff and for any future entrepreneurs that I have the opportunity to touch.”