On Buffalo Wings

The late Spencer Block details the history of the clothing-exchange chain that was born here in Tucson

Every city has parts of its heritage that earn it recognition throughout the country. They can include historical attractions, natural landmarks, political figures, educational institutions ... and retail establishments.

Buffalo Exchange, now sparking trends at 42 outlets in hip neighborhoods across the country, is proof of that. Think about it: The last time you walked by the Buffalo Exchange on Los Angeles' Ventura Boulevard or dodged hipsters to enter the Williamsburg, N.Y., branch, you of course bragged to the locals about frequenting this store in your hometown back when vintage cowboy boots were worn by actual cowboys (in this very hometown).

So it's about time that Buffalo Exchange has its own history told. Spencer Block's book The Way of the Buffalo gives readers an intimate peek into the lives of the store's co-founders, Spencer and his wife, Kerstin, since they opened their first store in 1974.

Kerstin, a Swedish immigrant and mother of two, had been fired from a furniture-store decorating job and failed at her subsequent secretarial gig. A longtime lover of thrift stores, swap meets and flea markets, she'd amassed quite a collection of women's clothing—enough, in fact, to stock a small store. So she and Spencer opened one.

As far as the couple knew, theirs was the first store that bought, sold and traded clothing and accessories (and took them on consignment). Whether or not Buffalo Exchange was the first of its kind, no one can deny that it's been one of the most groundbreaking and successful. After just three months, the store was earning enough to let Spencer quit his University of Arizona job and devote his time to the store.

Although Kerstin is generally thought of as Buffalo's backbone, she's only half of the founding team.

"We had a very good working relationship, because I was, like, the practical person who worked and bought the clothes and so on, but Spencer was more of a spiritual, thinking, philosophical person," Kerstin says. "He had a master's in counseling psychology and understood people more than I did."

But it wasn't that Kerstin was the practical businesswoman, and Spencer was the lofty-minded people person. In fact, Spencer came from a business background and had a better understanding of business than Kerstin did; he was also a great problem-solver—in Kerstin's words, "always thinking about a million things. His mind never rested."

Spencer died of pancreatic cancer in September 2009. He fought the disease for an amazing 4 1/2 years. After his death, Kerstin says, the store was left without a "spiritual leader."

Fortunately, throughout the last decade of his life, Spencer's fingers were as busy as his mind had always been. He spent hours on the computer drafting what eventually became The Way of the Buffalo, originally conceived as an organized business primer, but finally published this year as a hodgepodge of advice, stories, observations, opinions and even poetry. After his death, Kerstin and her daughter went through his typed-out ramblings and edited them into a quite readable—in fact, delightful—history of the store.

"Buffalo Exchange has a certain culture compared to other businesses," Kerstin declares. "(This book is) a good way to pass down the culture of the store, because he was the one who cultivated that."

Kerstin says The Way of the Buffalo is a great book for anyone who's interested in her stores—or for anyone who just likes a good story. But it also fulfills Spencer's original goal: It includes valuable advice for anyone who wants to succeed in small business.

The book also addresses Buffalo Exchange's name: What the hell does it mean? The answer, Kerstin insists, is nothing. She simply thought "Buffalo" evoked images of the Wild West, while Spencer suggested they add "Exchange," because that's what the store would do: exchange clothes.

However, in Spencer's writings, the name has plenty of meaning, confusing though it may be. As he compares the store's business methods to "the way of the buffalo" (not to be confused with "going the way of the buffalo"), we also get an explanation of the store's early winged-buffalo logo.

"Buffaloes don't like to fly," Spencer writes. "They have their own way of getting around; and to be a buffalo, one has to learn how to do this—how to adapt to the path—how to become one through and through. Thirty years ago, we hopped on the back of a buffalo with wings and took off for a flight of fancy, adventure and fun. ... We are still flying."