Metro Weekly

Jacked Up: An Interview with Scott Wallis

Scott Wallis wanted to open a gay underwear store. Then he added shirts, belts, casual wear, colognes, ties. The result is perhaps the most appealing masculine boutique Washington has ever seen. Welcome to Avenue Jack.

Scott Wallis: Avenue Jack -- Photo: Todd Franson

Scott Wallis: Avenue Jack — Photo: Todd Franson

From stints in the Bush White House and at two leading libertarian think tanks, to a foray into the fun albeit profit-free world of podcasting, no chapter in the book of Scott Wallis reads quite like the one that came before. The story is a page-turner, much like one of the mystery novels he writes in his spare time, brought to life through vivid, only-in-D.C. details.

A little over a year ago, Wallis embarked on his most ambitious adventure yet — Avenue Jack, a men’s casual retail shop south of Dupont Circle, nestled between Luna Grill and a Starbucks, steps away from the Metro.

“Dale came up with the name,” Wallis says, referring to business partner Dale Blades, with whom he co-hosted the gay comedy podcast Swish Edition for several years. “We literally wrote down dozens and dozens of names and Avenue Jack just seemed to work.” Retail wasn’t an obvious career move for either man, but in recent years, D.C. has seen a resurgence of independent boutique retailers like Avenue Jack, particularly in trendy, revitalizing neighborhoods. “I wanted to be on 14th Street,” Wallis says. “All the stores like Shinola, Filson, Federal — there’s great shopping over there. But the rents over there are ridiculous — over 100 dollars a square foot. We couldn’t afford that.”

For the moment, he’s content with his Dupont Circle location. “We’re getting business people, we’re getting tourists,” he says. “More and more, we’re getting locals.” Wallis is drawing people to the store by holding events. Powered by food and drink provided by neighboring vendors, the store has hosted small fundraisers for local organizations on a regular basis.

Boasting a dark copper tin ceiling and cedar walls to dark brown-stained hardwood floors, Avenue Jack has a deep, masculine feel to it. It’s comfortable, intimate. “We were going for kind of a cross between a gentleman’s club and a mountain chalet,” Wallis says. “I just wanted it to be a really warm antithesis of what so many stores are now. You walk into H&M or Walmart or Gap and they’re so bright white, with overhead lights. We don’t have one fluorescent light in here. It’s as warm as possible.”

Just like the soft-spoken 46-year-old himself, who is as forthcoming (and, this being Washington, politically outspoken) as he is congenial and welcoming. He’s proud of his accomplishments, and rightfully so. Retail isn’t an easy mountain to scale, but Wallis, who is the very embodiment of persistence and drive, is determined to reach its peak and plant his flag.

For Scott Wallis, it’s most definitely a man’s world.

Scott Wallis: Avenue Jack -- Photo: Todd Franson

Scott Wallis: Avenue Jack — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with what brought you to D.C.

SCOTT WALLIS: I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. Not too far away — at least two and a half hours, but with horrible I-95 traffic, it can take a lot longer than that. I went to college at Radford University in Southwest Virginia. While I was in college I got the opportunity to work for then-Vice President Dan Quayle. I took a semester off from school to come work full-time in his office, in the Old Executive Office Building. And I worked directly for his Director of Administration.

MW: Are you a Republican?

WALLIS: I was at the time, yeah. I’m not anymore. Not since immediately after college, when I went to work at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank. Then I realized the error of my ways and became an independent. I don’t associate with any party.

MW: When did you come out?

WALLIS: I don’t know if I ever did. I think I just always was. I started telling friends in high school. I don’t think I talked about it when I worked at the White House. But certainly in high school, my good friends knew. I didn’t tell my parents until after college because I was afraid they might cut off my funding for college, but they’ve been very cool about it. They’re super Republican. Voting for Trump. Very religious. But they’ve accepted me. I’ve been with my partner now for 22 years and we go on vacations together and they stay at our house and come to all the holidays and stuff. So they’ve been very supportive. We don’t talk about politics or religion though.

MW: What religion are they?

WALLIS: My mom’s a Christian Scientist.

MW: Who don’t believe in medical science.

WALLIS: That’s right. And it was tough growing up that way. Both my parents are pilots — dad was a commercial pilot and mom was a private pilot. So they only had so much leeway. As a pilot you have to get a physical every six months to keep your license. They had to go through the hoops. They had to, to be able to fly. They did do that.

MW: Did you interact with the gay community while working for Dan Quayle?

WALLIS: No. At that point I’d never been to a gay bar. I had gay friends and I had dated but I’d never, ever been to a gay bar, and I thought they were so scary. Even though JR.’s was just up the street, two blocks from where I was living, I wouldn’t go, because I was deathly afraid to go there. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen to me.

MW: Did homosexuality ever come up while you were working for Quayle? Did you ever feel uncomfortable?

WALLIS: No, but Dan Quayle was amazing. I mean he’s a lot more conservative than I am, but he’s a great, great guy. And I got to know him really well. I did a lot of family trips, I didn’t do official trips. So I spent a lot of time with his kids. And whenever I would take the kids out without the parents, he’d want to talk to me. So it would be just the two of us sitting around talking. That was pretty cool. I don’t know how many people get to just sit and talk to the Vice President of the United States like that at such an age.

MW: Did you ever bring a date to a White House function?

WALLIS: I certainly did not. But I wasn’t even dating anyone at that point, so it wasn’t a problem. I went by myself or went with other friends from the White House.

MW: I understand you also have a connection to the conservative Koch brothers beyond their involvement at Cato.

WALLIS: I was the Creative Director at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University for four years, which is another libertarian, free-market think tank co-founded by Charles Koch. I did fundraising and event planning, all kinds of stuff. I was in charge of the website. I also oversaw all publications. It was a big job.

MW: The Koch brothers aren’t strictly Libertarian anymore though. WALLIS: Well, they were. David Koch was the Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee at one point. But no, I think they’re pretty aligned with the GOP now — except I don’t believe they’re supporting Trump.

MW: How do you feel about Trump?

WALLIS: I think he’s the antichrist. [Laughs.] He’s horrible, in every possible way. Just the flat-out lies. Right after the debate, the press said, “You said you’re smart because you didn’t pay any taxes” and he said, “I didn’t say that.” The whole world just heard you say it, dumbass. He’s awful. We have to do everything we can to make sure that man doesn’t become president. And [Libertarian Party presidential candidate] Gary Johnson, who I did like up until recently, we need him to go away. What he did on MSNBC — you can’t name one frigging world leader? Not one? That’s inexcusable. If I was [running mate] William Weld, I’d drop out. I’d walk away from Gary. They have no possibility of winning, so they just need to go away.

MW: Do you like Hillary Clinton?

WALLIS: No, I can’t stand her.

MW: So you won’t be voting for her, then?

WALLIS: Does it matter who I vote for? I live in Washington, D.C. My vote doesn’t count. D.C. is going to vote for Hillary Clinton by at least 85 percent, so it doesn’t really matter who I vote for. But I certainly won’t be voting for Trump.

MW: What should we do to ensure that he doesn’t get elected?

WALLIS: We have to convince people in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida not to vote for him.

MW: Are you going to do anything?

WALLIS: Besides putting up articles about how horrible Trump is on social media? No.

MW: Is there any hope of convincing your parents not to vote for him?

WALLIS: No. Sometimes we’ll start talking about certain things. I mean I certainly agree with them on certain issues. I am fairly conservative on fiscal issues. I don’t think we need to be giving everything to everyone for free, or guaranteeing everything to everyone. I don’t think the government needs to be a 100 percent safety net for every single citizen. That’s going to bankrupt us someday. I mean Hillary getting up there and promising everyone free college is such a joke. It’s never going to happen. Of course she likes to say it, over and over again. And if you do give everyone free college, doesn’t it just become 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th grades? Does a college education really mean anything if every single person in the country gets to go just like they do up until the 12th grade? That’s one of my big things. Should it be more affordable? Yes. And we should work on ways to do that, but I don’t think it should be free. Because it dumbs it down for everybody. When it becomes free and everyone can go, it’s not special anymore.

MW: Do you miss being in politics?

WALLIS: No. And I don’t miss working 9 to 5, either. I don’t think I could ever work in an office again. It’s been twelve years since I’ve had a job where someone else is paying me.

MW: When did you get into fashion and retail?

WALLIS: About ten years ago my family started a baby clothes manufacturing company — House of Mongrel. We had a little mongrel dog as the mascot. I did this with my sister and brother-in-law. We designed all the clothes, and we had them produced. They were all organic, all made in America — which were two of our big mistakes. Being all made in America and being all organic is very expensive, which kept us out of a lot of stores. We could never get the big contracts that we really needed, like Target or the mainstream chains. We did get into about 350 stores across the country, which was really exciting, including some stores here in D.C. After that project was over, that’s when the concept of opening our own store for guys came about.

The original concept was to open a super gay underwear store. My partner Dennis and I were in London and we went into this underwear store. And I absolutely fell in love with it. The shopping in London is amazing. There are just so many cute little independent stores. You definitely knew you were walking into a gay store. And they had this great underwear, Bluebuck underwear, which I fell in love with. I bought a pair and I’m like, “You know what? We should go home and open a super gay underwear store and give Universal Gear a run for the money, because their stuff is so expensive.”

So that was the idea — to get a small space and just sell underwear. We put a business plan together for that. And after going to trade shows, I thought, “You know what, why don’t we add t-shirts?” And then, “Maybe we should add jeans. And what about coats? Jackets? And then of course people are going to need belts.” Eventually, we got to, “Let’s not just be a gay underwear store, let’s be a store for everybody.” And then it became this. And we ended up with two-thousand square feet. A casual men’s clothing store. No ties, no jackets, no blazers, no suits. There are a million stores in D.C. that do that so we’re not even going to try to touch that. We just wanted to be as mainstream as possible. Preppy, casual, comfortable, moderately priced.

MW: Is that still the mission?

WALLIS: Well, now that Universal Gear is gone we’ve upped our underwear game a little bit by adding C-IN2, and we have jockstraps now. I don’t know if any straight guys have bought them, but we’ve certainly sold them to gay guys.

MW: What’s been the biggest surprise since you opened?

WALLIS: Oh my gosh. Tons and tons of stuff. I didn’t anticipate that half of our customers would be women, buying stuff for guys. That’s been eye-opening. We thought it would be all guys, not knowing that women buy the majority of straight guys’ stuff for them. We also didn’t realize we’d get as many out-of-towners, tourists. I think that’s probably because of the neck of the woods that we’re in. We’ve got the Mayflower just a block down. We’ve got the Dupont Circle Hotel. The Washington Hilton sends people to us all the time — when business guys forget a tie or forget their belt or forget their underwear. The concierges have been really great about that, and we’ve definitely gone out of our way to make friends with the concierges.

MW: You’re also reaching out to the community.

WALLIS: We do a lot of events here, running specials. Last week we had a big party for SMYAL. And I don’t think we’ve had more people in the store — it was really crowded. I couldn’t make it from the front door to the back.

MW: What keeps people coming back to Avenue Jack over other stores?

WALLIS: We have a great loyalty program. For every dollar you spend you get a point, and your points add up to free store credits. So instead of giving our best customers 15 percent off or something, they’re getting points, and then they can use that store credit towards stuff that they want. We try to communicate with them when we have new stuff that we think they might be interested in.

MW: Such as?

WALLIS: I’m really excited about Faherty, which is a kind of surf-inspired brand. And Grayers, started by a former head designer for Ralph Lauren. Just great classic preppy shirts and ties and jackets. And we have Herschel and Timbuk2 bags.

MW: You also carry giftable, non-clothing items.

WALLIS: That wasn’t even on our radar when we first opened, but now we have a lot of it and we sell a lot of it. We have the D.C. map glassware. We have the cocktailing stuff, like the carry-on cocktail kit and the pineapple tumbler. Those things — our D.C. pillows, the neighborhood pillows with all the names on it, the neighborhood coasters, the glass coasters — they’re made right here in the city. That stuff has done really, really well for us. Again, mostly women buy that stuff. They come in here looking for a gift for their boyfriend or husband or brother, and we try to steer them away from buying something that is going to be returned. Like, if they buy him that medium sweater and he’s like an extra large or hates that color — it’s hard to buy clothes for other people. I’ve never quite understood that. I think people should buy their own clothes. But we’ll sell them — if you want to buy it, we’ll sell it to you. [Laughs.] But most likely, it’s coming back. So that’s why having the gifty stuff is great. I mean, they can buy a SlideBelt, which fits anybody. They can buy the D.C. glassware or grooming stuff or a tie. Soap or cologne.

MW: How do you decide on what cologne to carry?

WALLIS: They had to be stuff that you’re not going to find in every major department store. So the ones we have right now are craft small-batch, made in Austin, Texas, called Moonshine, Bluegrass. It’s kind of a musky, earthy scent without being overpowering. I’m not a cologne user or wearer, but my customers like them and we sell a lot of it.

MW: How often are you here in the store?

WALLIS: Every day. Every day that I’m in town. I have days off but I inevitably end up in here anyway.

MW: You haven’t taken a vacation?

WALLIS: No, not as vacation. I’ve gone on a couple trips. We go to Vegas twice a year to buy for the store. We go to New York a lot to go to showrooms and stuff. I recently went to Boston for my cousin’s wedding. But these are things I have to do. I haven’t done a real vacation yet.

MW: What are your plans for the future? A second location?

WALLIS: That’s the goal. I don’t think we could ever make enough money to make this worthwhile just having one store. If you look at what David did with Universal Gear, I mean at one point he had five or six stores. Lou Lou and South Man Under are both local chains that started with one store. One’s never enough. You’ve got to have more. And if you’re going to do all this work, it’s actually not that much more work to do a second store.

Having other locations was part of the original business plan. Of course I thought we’d be working on store number two by now. I don’t think we’re quite ready for that. We definitely want to keep it within the DMV somewhere. We’d like to produce our own clothes too. Right now we just have logo T-shirts. We’ve got some canvas bags and we’ve got some hats. But we’d like to make our own stuff. Eventually.

We feel really good. We keep growing. It’s going to take some more time before we have proof of concept, I guess. And hopefully that’ll happen. We’re coming now to the most important part of the year, our strongest quarter by far. Last December — our first — was the first month that we were in the black. We expect that that will happen again, even more so this year now that more people know that we’re here.

MW: Have you got any plans outside of Avenue Jack?

WALLIS: My personal goal ever since college has been to be a published author. And my ultimate, ultimate goal is to publish a book a year. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t realize it was so damn hard.

MW: The writing?

WALLIS: To get published. The writing is the easy part, and I have a great editor that I work with that helps me polish stuff. I tried for well over a decade and then decided just to publish my own stuff. I finally have secured a book agent, so I’m trying to finish my current book and hopefully we’ll be able to sell that to a publisher. I’m feverishly trying to finish the book but it’s not easy while running the store. My goal is to finish it by the end of the year.I have my fingers crossed that I’ll actually be able to sell something.

MW: Is it a mystery like your self-published book, Scout’s Honor?

WALLIS: Yeah, dark humor mysteries, that’s what I write.

MW: Are you a big mystery movie type of guy?

WALLIS: I watch a lot of TV, I don’t watch as many movies. But I’m a humongous James Bond fan. I’ve seen all the James Bond movies like ten times each. My stuff’s not spy-related, but I do love that kind of thing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Stuart Woods — he writes three books a year, and I read every single one. I would love to be at a place where I’m publishing three books a year. And he’s got his own airplane and four houses. He does really well for himself.

I just want to sell one. I don’t even care if anyone buys it. I just want a publishing house to agree to publish a book. That would be just absolutely thrilling for me.

Avenue Jack is located at 1301 Connecticut Ave. NW, and open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 202-887-5225 or visit avenuejack.com.

Jacktoberfest, featuring store specials, autumn beers on tap and a Halloween prize giveaway, is set for the last weekend in October.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.