Building relationships through retail
By Crystal Burns
When a teenager comes into Westwin looking for the latest pair of Nike, Ronald Gentry seizes the opportunity.
Gentry knows how to talk to athletes and hip hop connoisseurs and kids from the streets. But the Trenton native isn’t in it for the shoe sales alone. He’s building relationships through retail.
“Every young person – I try to give them words of wisdom,” Gentry says. “It wasn’t always roses. A lot of young men from the streets, I talk to them, and they talk to me. That’s what keeps me going here.”
Gentry was in his early 20s when the late Winter Hodges asked his brother Bill Hodges and Gentry to open a clothing store in Jackson. Gentry had no experience in retail and no clue what he was getting into, but the more he worked at 310 Rosemont, the more he enjoyed it.
“I fell in love with the traveling,” Gentry says.
On buying trips to New York City, Atlanta, and Las Vegas, Gentry, who had previously ventured no further than his prep and junior college sports teams had taken him, met Keith Sweatt and Roy Jones, LL Cool J and DMX.
Gentry learned he had a good eye for fashion and found a family in his new career.
Gentry played basketball and baseball at Peabody High School. He was a go-to player on the hardwood, a multi-skilled competitor and team leader. Gentry was a year younger than his teammate Bill Hodges. The two knew each other through basketball but went their separate ways after practice.
Gentry says fashion wasn’t on his mind back then.
“I was corny in school,” he jokes.
He graduated from Peabody in 1989 and played basketball for two years at Jackson State Community College. Hodges was nearby playing football at Lambuth. The two began hanging out. Then Gentry went to ITT in Nashville but didn’t stay long. When he came home to Trenton, he and Hodges were together again. They weren’t, however, spending their time together productively.
In 1993 when Winter approached them about opening the Jackson store, Gentry and Bill agreed on the first day, “We’re different,” Gentry remembers.
The store started with dress and casual wear. Bill attended to the dress side, and Gentry oversaw the casual attire. They soon learned they needed to help each other.
“We had to relate to everybody,” Gentry says. “We understood that from the beginning. We never cared about color, religion, or politics. All we want to do is make you feel good about yourself by dressing you.”
While Winter gave them the opportunity and the support they needed to be successful, he also expected them to make the most of it.
“Winter quickly made us become men,” Gentry says. “He made us understand the business. We had to grow up fast.”
Gentry remembers Winter as one of the first white guys he ever saw wearing blue jeans or khaki pants with penny loafers and no socks.
“He dressed more hip,” Gentry says with a smile.
The store “turned into a family situation” for Gentry and the Hodges. The late Velma Hodges wouldn’t answer when Gentry once addressed her as Ms. Velma. He was to call her mama, and Bill did the same for Gentry’s mother. They have grieved with each other as they’ve lain to rest their parents and grandparents, Winter, and close friend Fred Culp.
When Ronald had a heart attack in July, Hodges says he fretted over Westwin, where Gentry has run the men’s department since 2001, for about a minute, before realizing the bigger question was, “What would I do without Ronald?”
“Ronald is my family,” Hodges says. “I was scared because I love him.”
During the three weeks Gentry was recuperating from the heart attack, countless customers, many of them young people, stopped by or called to check on Gentry. They asked him how he was doing, if his wife Tara needed anything, and reminded him of something he said that helped them make a good decision.
“I’ve met a lot of guys from this store that ended up being good friends, more like family,” Gentry says.
Hodges recently updated Gentry’s “side” of Westwin, bringing in furniture from Winter’s store in Atlanta to create a unique feature that showcases the extensive selection of Nike shoes Westwin carries. While Hodges gets credit for the installation and adding a light-up feature, Gentry is the genius behind the sales.
“That’s Ronald’s vision,” Hodges says. “It’s his ideas. He does all the buying. It speaks volumes that people come from miles to shop with him. Ronald just has a knack for knowing the right shoes, and he treats people right.
“He tries to help,” Hodges adds. “He wants to speak to young people. He’ll talk about any topic. He’s not afraid. With Ronald running Westwin, the future is bright.”