Sneakertown: An Interview with Ian Williams of Deadstock Coffee & Gallery

How a janitor at Nike became a shoe designer and the owner of Portland's only sneaker cafe.

Welcome back to Sneakertown, Willamette Week's weekly column highlighting news in Portland's sneaker, sportswear and streetwear world.

When you enter Deadstock Coffee & Gallery's new storefront you may not notice its mantra, "Squad Goals: To make the coffee snob and the sneaker nerd become friends over the love of all things premium," printed on its glass doors. What you will notice is a lot of really cool shoes, moments before you are swept into whatever conversation is swirling between the sneakerheads, design students and business people, all of it conducted by Deadstock's proprietor, Ian Williams.

Ian Williams is something of a celebrity in Portland's sneaker world. "I used to be a developer, an engineer," says Williams. "I worked for Nike for a total of nine years. I started at the employee store, and I had a temp job making air bags [the air-filled cushions in the soles of most Nike shoes with the word "Air" in the title] with Nike's In House Manufacturing . I was there for a couple of months and realized that I wanted to be seen more, so I took a job as a janitor on campus. I was a janitor there for three years, and thought I was going to be there for six months."

Williams' work as a janitor was his intro to the world of sneaker design. "I got to know some people in pretty high places because I took out their trash," he says. While working as a janitor, Williams asked to design a package of sneakers based around his work: which culminated in the release of the Nike SB Wet Floor Dunk Hi, a high top sneaker styled after slippery when wet signs.

The Nike SB Wet Floor Dunk Hi, designed by Williams The Nike SB Wet Floor Dunk Hi, designed by Williams

In 2014, Williams moved on. "I left Nike to do something more involved with the community," says Williams. "The easy way to do that is to open up a shoe store, but those guys are my homies. I don't want to compete with them. I know the power a coffee shop has in the community. With Compound Gallery, [footwear design school] Pensole and INDEXPDX already being here, why not make a place where those things have some representation?"

Instead of another shoe store, he decided to go into coffee. From March to July of 2015, his creation, Deadstock Coffee, was a small coffee stand in the upstairs area of sneaker and streetwear boutique Compound Gallery. He moved his operation to the foyer of the Goldsmith Blocks Building, expanding his cart and gaining business outside of Compound's sneakerheads.

A few weeks ago, Williams opened up shop at his own brand new brick-and-mortar location on Couch, nestled between Orox Leather and Floating World Comics.

Even in its infancy, Deadstock is a place to talk shoes and the footwear business. According to Williams, networking "just happens organically."

"I know people who started in entry level positions at Nike from being a janitor," he says. "After 10 years they're a manger or somewhere close to it by now. They'll come in just to see me and there may be someone in from Pensole who'll be working on a project and I'll introduce them. From there, sometimes it's just like: 'Hey man, you're a cool designer and I'd love to come by and see what you're working on.' It's up to those people to build the relationship. This space is just the connecting piece."

In fact, a connection had been made earlier that day. "Something really cool just happened," says Williams. "Some people from Sketchers are in town, and just started talking with a customer. They were recruiters, so I was able to refer this guy to them. Someone that they might actually hire one day. There were people at Nike who helped me get into footwear. Even while I was working there I did as much as I could to mentor and help answer questions. There are people who made sacrifices for me, so that's why helping people like this is important."

All of Deadstock's decorations come from Williams' time at Nike. Some of it was recovered from the trash. All of Deadstock’s decorations come from Williams’ time at Nike. Some of it was recovered from the trash.

Williams' goals for Deadstock go beyond Portland: he eventually wants to open up cafes in other big sneaker centers like New York and Tokyo. For now, he wants Deadstock to be a space where people can go to relax and talk shoes. "In Portland, you actually get to meet the people who worked on the product," says Williams. "In other cities you won't get that kind of proximity. So I had to start here. Even when I was working with investors, there were people who wanted to open in San Francisco first. I said 'I'll pass,' which is dumb, because I could have had three cafes by now. But it's not about the money. I want athletes and musicians and designers to come in here, because they all come to Portland to have meetings. I want them to have a place to go after that meeting and hang out. How insane would it be if you're a Blazers fan and Damian Lillard is in here making your coffee?"

"Going from being a janitor into footwear was kind of the same thing as starting a sneaker cafe," says Williams. "People told me I wasn't going to make it without a degree. But I like doing things I'm not supposed to do."

Read more about Ian Williams, his background in design and the Wet Floor Dunk Hi at Sole Collector and Fatlace.

Go: Deadstock Coffee & Gallery, 408 NW Couch St, Monday-Friday 7:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm.

Drink: Deadstock serves brewed coffee and espresso drinks made with Dapper & Wise beans and has a robust selection of teas. Be sure to order the Zero Chill ($4/16 oz): a blend of Indian Tea, Honduran cold brew and cane sugar. It tastes like a cross between a raisin and a Tootsie Roll.

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