I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Kealan Sullivan
Job: Owner/Operator/Buyer, 69 Vintage and 69 Vintage Collective
Kealan Sullivan never stops moving. Sure, you may have spotted her at 69 Vintage, the near-legendary West Queen West vintage boutique that she’s owned and operated since 2004 (and expanded to a second location at Bloor and Lansdowne last year), but never perched over the counter, casually flipping through a magazine or tagging Facebook photos.
No, she was the one running: in and out of the store with new finds (she shops everyday); down into her stockroom basement to crack open one of her hundreds of Rubbermaid bins stocked with tomorrow’s (and next year’s) vintage trends; or, most often, in circles around the store, gathering an armful of denim, say, to give a customer a tutorial on how to determine, just by looking, how a pair of vintage Levi’s will fit.
On the day of our interview, Sullivan bursts into the store carrying an armload of new merchandise, and promptly shifts into warp speed. She drops the pile of clothes onto the red leather barber’s chair that sits next to the store’s entrance; comments on the smell emitting from The Social, the friendly neighbourhood club located right next door (“Garbage. Mmm.”); asks her clerk to “light the candle” (“It’s lit,” she calls back); kisses a loitering male customer like he’s family (“Hey baby.”); calls across the store to a female customer trying on ankle boots (“Honey. Yes. Those are hot.”); and, when told of the angle our photographer wants to shoot her, decides to redress a mannequin (“She’s too bare. She’s needs a scarf or something.”).
After the photos are taken, we retreat to a nearby café to talk. For the first time, I have her full attention. This is an intense experience. Her focus is like a Klieg-light, bright, strong, never letting up; she speaks rapidly and tangentially; her eyes flit around the room as she darts from one thought to the next, to the next, to the next, rarely having been prompted by a question; and she often repeats herself, Oprah-style, simultaneously emphasizing and affirming the declarations she frequently spouts.
More than anything over the course of our conversation, Sullivan projects assuredness. She has wanted to own a store since she was a teenager growing up in Gravenhurst, Ontario, and spent her twenties bartending at clubs by night and building her stock by day. She considers herself “lucky” to be where she is: two failed attempts at opening stores in Kensington Market led her to consider another neighbourhood, and as a result, she was the first to bring vintage out of Kensington Market and into the hands of west-side trendsetters. (At west-side prices too, natch.)
Six years on, she’s Toronto’s certifiable queen of vintage, with the most unique finds and the most carefully careless-looking spaces, and, as I find out over the course of our conversation, she has no intention of giving up her crown any time soon.
Torontoist: How did 69 Vintage start?
Kealan Sullivan: At that time I was partnered with the guys that own The Social, Jesse [Girard] and Richard [Lambert]. We opened that together, and within the year that was pretty clear that it was my business. And they had their eyes set on opening a bar next door. So they opened The Social. And I didn’t know that they would allow me, basically, to take over what they were doing [with the store], kind of without them paying attention. They were so happy with my job they didn’t realize that I might just take over.
So you went out on your own?
Yes. I bought them out. And it was a bit of a…Well, I was completely decided. I was either going to open up, actually right down the block, or buy them out. It was non-negotiable.
Did they have a vision for the store that was different from yours?
Yeah. Very much so. Anyone who came to the store in the beginning, everyone was looking at me saying, “it’s so not you.”
What was it like?
It was stark. It was all concrete, it was all metal, there was no wood in the store, there was no silk or wool. It was full-on ’80s. This was in 2004, and we were preparing in 2003, so there weren’t a lot of people doing ’80s. It’s not like I didn’t like the store, but it wasn’t holistic enough for me. It was a very narrow focus. It was limited, to me. And it was limited in terms of customers. It’s changed a ton [since then]. I’m not saying it’s better the way it is, I’m saying it works for me.
What’s your vision for the store, then?
Everything. Everything that is anything. You can walk in the store and you won’t always find something, because it’s vintage, and that’s the law, and because I pick for such a diverse aesthetic, it can’t possibly be a guarantee. The people who check in the most are the happiest customers. Because they’ll find the little denim bustier, they’ll find whatever it is they’re after.
Did you always want to run a store?
Yes. Always. As long as I can remember. I tried to do it in my hometown, like before I even left high school. And I worked for somebody that owned a massive, twenty-five-thousand-square-foot store. Like a real emporium. And that’s when I first knew that I had everything it was going to take. I was in a management role by the time I was eighteen, and we had so much inventory. I was dealing with suppliers, dealing with returns, dealing with customers. It wasn’t a fantasy for me. It was like, “I know how to run a store, and because of that, I will.”
Do you shop every day?
I shop every day. I shop every day.
Do you tell anyone where you shop?
Not even your staff?
And you do all the shopping?
All the shopping. Well, my boyfriend works with me now. But that’s two stores. It’s a lot of volume. Plus four seasons. Plus all the stuff I alter and repair. It’s a lot of work. Right now, what I’m trying to do actually, believe it or not, is I’m trying to double the inventory in that store without making it feel like any inventory’s actually been added. Like I actually know how many hangers I have in there, and—
No, I don’t actually know. [Laughs.] Sorry. No, I’ve got my stacker. And to me, if there’s hangers in the stacker, I’m losing money.
How does it feel now, that you’re the first place people go for their wingtip loafers and party dresses?
It feels good. It feels scary.
Well, there are about eleven stores that have opened mirroring my thing. I mean, it’s not like I invented it or anything. But my model was the first outside of Kensington with a hip, young vibe. And it was a risk at the time. In business, every day is a risk. There’s always the threat that that other person is going to be fresher, or somehow have a better source than you, or their parents own the building so they have no rent to pay and their stuff’s cheaper. There’s always these things, and I’m not an aggressive person, but I am very competitive and I don’t like it. I mean, I don’t mind when I see someone else, and they come in with a different bag from a different store. I shop at other stores. Vintage is my passion regardless of where I get it from. But I am very competitive when it comes to buying. Very.
So what happens if you see another dealer at a supplier’s?
If I see someone in there, and I do, I bump into a few of the other dealers often enough and we’re friendly, but they always joke, “Whoa, Kealan’s in business mode,” because I’m not really there to chit chat. I’m like, my head is down and I’m moving and every second counts for me. Bottom line.
What about the future?
I honestly feel like I might on page ten of like a hundred-and-fifty-page story. For me, it’s like, I’ve never arrived. People are always like, “Oh, you’ve done so well.” I would rather hear, “you’re doing so well.” I mean, if I’m done doing what I do, then I’m going to be on the downturn. And I have no intention of being on the downturn. At all.
69 VIntage is located at 1100 Queen Street West; 69 Vintage Collective is located at 1207 Bloor Street West.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.