Teamship Navigators

A love of all things sports created the perfect opportunity for Kevin Smith 30 years ago

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

kevin_smith_sports1216Kevin Smith is the owner, with his sister Joanie McGinn, of Kevin Smith Sports on Main Street in St. Albans, Main Street Graphics a few doors away, and a satellite store in South Burlington.

His name’s on the sign and I do most of the work,” says a laughing, camera-shy Joanie McGinn, describing the way she and her brother Kevin Smith share duties as co-owners of their St. Albans-based business, Kevin Smith Sports. In truth, she says, their jobs have “kind of fallen into place” over the years, evolving according to their strengths.

Since its founding in 1986, Kevin Smith Sports has grown to be the largest locally owned sporting goods store of its kind in the state: a retailer and supplier of team jerseys and uniforms, equipment, and footwear for high school, college, prep school, and youth organizations in northern New England. Customers make up a worthy list of athletic departments at a host of high schools, including Enosburg, Bellows Free Academy, Champlain Valley Union, Essex, South Burlington, and Winooski, and institutions like The University of Vermont, Castleton University, Middlebury and St. Michael’s colleges, and Princeton, Brown, Skidmore, and St. Lawrence.

A South Burlington location opened on Williston Road in 2005, and Main Street Graphics, a print shop a couple of doors up Main Street in St. Albans, was launched in June of 2015 to reduce the company’s dependence on outside suppliers.

The main location could be considered a St. Albans landmark — once the site of the Hotel Kelley, a three-story, 34-room property that featured a restaurant and lounge, with a banquet hall in the basement. It passed through several hands before it became home to Kevin Smith Sports, but its original owner, Cliff Kelley, was the grandfather of McGinn’s husband, Kevin.

“When we bought this building in 1987,” she says with a chuckle, “my husband and his brother got the greatest kick out of it: ‘Oh, boy, if Grandpa Kelley knew ...’ So the building has sentimental as well as promotional value.”

An extensive renovation project created six apartments, a storefront for lease next to the sporting goods store, a business office, and a sales and shipping department in the basement. A sign on the exterior reads Kelley House, honoring its roots.

The Smith family is also a St. Albans institution. Smith’s grandfather Tom Smith operated the St. Albans House at the corner of Federal and Lake Streets during the heyday of the railroad.

“My mother had seven children in 10 years,” says Smith, the second-youngest, who continues, naming each one and his/her contribution to the community. McGinn is the second-oldest sibling.

After graduating from BFA, Smith attended North Country Community College for two years, with the goal of someday becoming a teacher. “I had a lot of fun in college, but I wasn’t a very good student,” he says with some chagrin, as he explains, with a laugh, that it was suggested he not return.

Undaunted, he took up painting houses. When his brother Tim was about to return to school after a year off from college studies, Smith received a call from Bernie Ducolon, the owner of Duke’s Sports Shop where Tim had been working, who offered him a job as manager. He said yes.

Smith had been active in sports for most of his life — “hockey, soccer, baseball, you name it, we did it,” he says. He enjoyed the work, and after a couple of years, in 1986, when Janson’s, the city’s other sporting goods shop, known mostly for skis in the pre-snowboarding world, came up for sale, he thought about buying it.

“I had just turned 23,” he says, “and obviously had no money to buy anything but a six-pack of beer. And that’s where my sister and brother-in-law came in.” With the help of the McGinns, he took over the business, which was then located in a small shopping center on Lake Street. A year later, the Hotel Kelley building went on the market, and the partners took the plunge.

McGinn had graduated from Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts, with a degree in teaching. She taught for five years in Fairfield, until 1983 when her oldest daughter, Katherine, was born, and she decided to become a stay-at-home mom while her husband worked for Energizer Batteries. “Two years later, along came Maureen, and then we purchased the store in ‘86,” she says. Anne, her youngest, was born in ’87, the year of the move to Main Street.

Things started to expand gradually. “Sometimes they would ask my opinion; sometimes I just offered it. Then he’d ask me to meet with some salesman to pick out clothing, and it evolved over a short period of time that I was here.”

Nowadays, like Smith, she’s usually in the store by 8. “It’s a lot of paperwork,” she says, “invoicing, entering accounts payable, accounts receivable, and working for the retail floor, as well as making sure we’re all on the same page. Then just putting out a lot of fires and waiting on customers.”

Smith is more the outside face of the business. “No day’s the same and never has been,” he says, “because it’s maybe a vendor who didn’t ship the order complete, or the employee who didn’t show up to work, or the dryer in the print shop is not on the right temperature, or the Burlington store needs a pair of skis by tonight and they’re in St. Albans, or one of the toilets upstairs in the apartments is overflowing.”

Smith is proud of the fact that the store is open seven days a week, and the only downtown shop open till 7 p.m. weekdays.

The atmosphere in the shop is lighthearted. “He’s like a pied piper that draws the kids to him and the store because of his personality and his attitude,” says Dan Marlow, the athletic director at Bellows Free Academy, which sits right across the street from the store. Marlow, who was Smith’s coach in junior high and high school, says he has gone from being his coach to being a very close friend.

“The idea of servicing team sports was in the plans from the beginning, but,” says Smith, “retail kept us busy enough, and slowly we did some uniforms here and there. Then we hired a guy who handled the team business, and five years later hired another guy, Reggie Snow, who’s still here.” Three years ago, when the first hire retired after 27 years, Dave Aliquo came aboard.

About 11 years ago, Smith noticed that fewer customers were coming up from Chittenden County because of the growth of Internet shopping. “We opened the South Burlington store to service them properly,” says Smith. Now the company has a full-time salesperson in South Burlington plus the two in St. Albans. In addition to Smith and McGinn, the company employs 12 full-timers.

Curiously, the shop does not sell online. “In the old days,” Smith says, “we got a lot of phone calls and had a lot of face-to-face meetings. Nowadays, it’s a lot of emails, and less phone calls. Back then, we had a lot of relationships, so they’re not as strong as they were 20 years ago. What’s happened, everyone wants to know about price. Twenty years ago, we were selling service and quality product; nowadays everyone wants to see price. I don’t know when the last time was someone asked me about how a uniform was built.”

With the exception of 2008 and ’09, sales have grown every year. That’s no doubt enhanced by the family’s connection to the community. McGinn sits on three volunteer boards in the city, and Smith, who lives six blocks from the shop with his wife, Christine, and daughter, Molly, participates in various annual Calcutta auctions, and sits on the football board and the city’s new Hard’ack recreation area board.

“I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter in youth hockey,” he says. “Wherever we’re needed, most of the time we’re there.”

“Both Joanie and Kevin are very involved in the downtown,” says Sharon Holcomb, the owner of Bayberry Cottage, a gift and design shop on Main Street. Holcomb is on the downtown board and heads its promotions committee.

“We have one big event every year,” Holcomb says. “Probably one of our biggest fundraisers is called A Chair Affair. We found a local man in Essex to make Adirondack chairs, which businesses purchase, then paint them with some kind of design, and we auction them off in August for a benefit. Kevin is always our auctioneer.”

Smith and his life-long friend Martin “Marty” Manahan, director of operations and business development for the city of St. Albans, often team up as auctioneers for this and other Calcutta benefits. “Kevin’s got a lot of energy,” Manahan says. “He’ll jump in and volunteer to help and contribute in any way he can.”

“Volunteering is one of those things I wish I could instill in my kids: that none of these organizations we deal with can go on without us volunteering and people giving their time,” Smith says. “Some days I’m peopled out, but you’ve still gotta go and see more people. That comes from my mother: She believed in volunteering and giving back to the community.

“Like any business, we have to keep growing,” says Smith, adding with a chuckle, “I’m too young to get out and I’m too old to get out, so I’m sort of trapped in here a few more years. We’ve been fortunate. One, we’ve had great employees, and two, our community supports both stores.” •