Just for Kicks

IN THIS SERIES, LOCAL SUN PROFILES LIKE-MINDED BUSINESS OWNERS IN THE HOUSTON AREA. In his specialty shop dedicated to sneakers, Thomas Nauls talks about downtown’s renaissance, the first shoe he fell in love with, and author Malcolm Gladwell.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

With its timeless, wavy pattern, the Nike Air Max 95 was the first sneaker Thomas Nauls fell in love with. Growing up, he was lucky if he got two new pairs of sneakers a year—at the start of the school year and on Christmas morning.

“I’ve always had a fascination with sneakers,” says the Houston native. He remembers looking longingly at classmates’ feet clad in the newest trends. When he got his first paycheck at age 17, his first stop was the shoe store, and over the years he’s added some 200-odd pairs of sneakers to his collection.

Thomas Nauls

Now, Nauls is founder and owner of The Tipping Point, a shop for sneaker enthusiasts. It’s a specialty store that showcases unique and limited-edition sneakers, along with other collectibles—books, art, clothing, music and accessories—and innovative products.

“I wanted the store to be a gallery for sneakers, but also a place to learn about sneakers,” Nauls says. A place that pays homage to well-crafted, distinctly designed sneakers made of high-end, and sometimes exotic materials—suede, thick canvas, leather, alligator skin—that don’t break the bank. Sneakers with a story.

Wu-Tang and Robin Williams

It’s nearly midday on a Monday and Nauls is organizing inventory ahead of the lunch rush. He grabs an intricate zebra-striped shoe off a shelf. It’s the Adidas EQT Support Advanced, which made a huge splash when it hit stores in the 1990s. Its updated version has been flying off the shelves, Nauls says. Sneakers in his shop run from $50-$400, but most are in the $125-$150 range.

Nauls counts actor and comedian David Alan Grier (a Nike Dunk fan) and local lawyers, bankers, athletes and high school kids among his clients. Actor Robin Williams once dropped into The Tipping Point for a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths and Vans Authentic.

The Tipping Point

“I never know what to expect, who will come in,” Nauls says. “When you’re a specialty retail store, you never know who your customers are going to be. A common thread is they’re looking for something unique. They appreciate the story behind the items we carry.”

Walking around The Tipping Point, one might find a Converse sneaker made in collaboration with New York City graffiti artist Futura, or a book or cell phone case printed with artist Keith Haring’s iconic paintings.

Other items include a Wu-Tang G Shock watch—one of just a few thousand made—a rare, eco-friendly shoe cleaner made by Jason Markk, and Field Notes—vintage-style pocket notebooks released in limited editions. “Anything in here can be a collectible,” Nauls says.

A Neighborhood Hub

Nauls grew up in Houston’s Hobby Airport area and attended Lanier Middle School and Lamar High School. “I’ve been in Houston my whole life and have never wanted to move,” he says. “I love the diversity.”

He dabbled for years in retail, working at Foot Locker and in management at Whole Foods. In travels outside Houston, he started to notice boutiques and niche stores pop up, while back home, big box stores and malls were still largely the preferred places to shop. Tastes slowly started to change, however, especially as Houston became home to more and more out-of-towners. “People started to want more unique items,” Nauls says.

Nauls—who had always wanted to open a store of his own—jumped on the opportunity. In 2007, he opened The Tipping Point downtown at Main and Polk Streets with three partners. This summer, he moved the shop to a larger space on Travis Street.

The Tipping Point at 214 Travis.

He likes downtown’s central location, and over the years he’s watched the area turn into a neighborhood of its own, with more bars and restaurants opening up, and residents moving in. More retail, he says, is what downtown needs next.

He named the shop after author Malcolm Gladwell’s debut book, which looks at trends and social behaviors. Nauls built his business plan off the book, finding a select group of connected friends, family members and acquaintances that helped him spread the word about the store.

“It ended up being all word-of-mouth marketing,” he says. Part of Nauls’ ongoing vision for The Tipping Point is as a community hub and a supporter of local artists. The shop has hosted music showcases, film screenings, book releases and art openings for undiscovered artists. It’s partnered with Workshop Houston, Fresh Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum on events. Nauls also created a pop-up-shop with rapper Kendrick Lamar that featured limited-edition merchandise.

Sneakers After the Storm

Lately, Nauls is in expansion-planning mode. He plans to double his staff, open a second location in Houston next year—in Montrose or Upper Kirby—and then a handful more over the next five years. For one store, he has his eye on a location overseas.

He’s looking to collaborate with more local Houston artists on sneakers and other merchandise, including visual artist Donkey Boy and street artist Nicky Davis, and he wants to start a coffee bar inside The Tipping Point.

Nauls feels lucky his store emerged from Hurricane Harvey unscathed. Flood waters stopped just a half block away. Since the storm hit, his vendors have sent boxes of footwear and apparel to donate to Houstonians. Nauls, along with Scott Repass and his wife Dawn Calloway, and Miriam Carillo, who own The Little Dipper Bar around the corner and Poison Girl in Montrose, will soon open a space in East Downtown to distribute the items. It will be open through the holidays.

“We want people to have an uplifting environment for people to come into and pick things out,” Nauls says. Together with Repass, Calloway and Carillo, he’s starting Project Recovery, a non-profit that will help Houstonians get back on their feet after the storm. The group will raise money and continue to solicit new clothing, shoes and accessory donations for Harvey victims, as well as those affected by future storms.

“It’s very important to be involved in the community,” Nauls says, “because that’s who supports us. We want to return that support.”