They say it’s a tough time for brick-and-mortar retail, and a trip through Buckhead shows some of the proof, as the old Belk department store at Phipps Plaza comes down brick by mortared brick for an office-and-hotel makeover.

But keep on traveling through Buckhead Village and you’ll find a locally based men’s apparel retailer that’s beating the odds. Onward Reserve, headquartered above its shop at 3072 Early St., has blossomed into an 11-stores-and-growing Southeast chain that just bought a new HQ on a future Buckhead segment of the Atlanta BeltLine.

Onward Reserve founder and owner T.J. Callaway inside the Buckhead store. (John Ruch)

Owner and founder T.J. Callaway, who also lives in Buckhead, says the difference is creating his own brand – a mix of preppy casual and outdoors-y practicality –that is authentic and true to itself.

“We get an Amazon package at our house every day,” says Callaway, explaining that he’s no foe of the store-crushing online retailer. But Amazon’s focus on showcasing the lowest price is “in effect… a race to the bottom for brands… The people getting killed by Amazon are selling a commodity,” not an identity, he says.

A stuffed bear inside the Onward Reserve headquarters. (John Ruch)

Onward Reserve’s identity is a bit of old-school masculine and a bit of Southern hospitality. The Buckhead store is festooned with deer heads and antlers – partly a nod to the neighborhood – and even a stuffed lion. You’ll be greeted warmly –even before they know you’re, say, a reporter — and if you’re thirsty, they’ll offer you a Coke or a beer.

The design is calculated, but it’s not just for show. A ride in an elevator hidden behind wooden paneling takes a visitor to the upstairs headquarters, where there are similar hunting trophies in the online sales shipping area and Callaway’s comfortable office. The break room has walls hung with swatches of shirt fabric under consideration, surrounding a stuffed bear mounted with crossed golf clubs.

“It’s kind of me,” Callaway says of the Onward Reserve brand identity. “It’s a store for what I want… I like to fish. I like to hunt… I’m kind of a weekend warrior on a lot of fronts.”

It’s what a lot of customers want, too, which is how Callaway attracted the interest of such investors as Robin Loudermilk, president and CEO of Buckhead-based Loudermilk Companies, one of the city’s biggest real estate firms, as landlord and partner.

The irony is that Callaway started his apparel business as an online store in 2011, curating other makers’ brands that he liked, before opening his first brick-and-mortar spot in Athens, Ga., in 2012. He says he quickly realized that simply being an “aggregator of brands” gave him little control over the future against the likes of Amazon. Today, Onward Reserve still sells other brands and has a growing sideline in college sports product licensing, but also create a house brand.

“We design them from scratch,” Callaway said. “That’s made all the difference… It’s what enabled us to turn into another brand instead of just another retailer.”

The company now has 11 store locations, including in Ponce City Market; Thomasville, Ga.; North Carolina; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; and Washington, D.C. Callaway says it plans to open two to three more stores in the next 12 months, including a new spot in Buckhead’s Peachtree Battle shopping center and a store in College Park, Texas. It continues to have a significant online and catalog-based sales business – though the catalog no longer contains an order form, instead driving people directly to the website.

And now Onward Reserve is moving into an expanded headquarters at 116 Bennett St., where online sales will be handled and the twice-a-year warehouse sale will be hosted, with the first one coming in July. The 40,000-square-foot building, which the company bought for $2.5 million, is a former antiques mall.

Known for nightclubs, shops and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, Bennett Street is also pegged in preliminary designs for a segment of the BeltLine trail, connecting to the existing Northside Trail nearby in Atlanta Memorial Park. The BeltLine’s transit line is planned to run on a railroad corridor just behind the Bennett Street building. Onward Reserve is no stranger to the BeltLine boom, as it has a location in the Old Fourth Ward’s Ponce City Market.

Deer heads and antlers decorate Onward Reserve’s shipping fulfilment area. (John Ruch)

“I am excited about all the work that has been done to improve the greater Memorial Park area and am glad to be a part of it,” said Callaway. “It will be very exciting for our new neighborhood and specifically for Bennett Street when the BeltLine ties into all the work that has been done by the PATH Foundation, the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation and others in and around Memorial Park.”

One thing not changing is that Onward Reserve remains a privately held company, “so that we can continue to be who we want to be as opposed to who an investor wants us to be,” Callaway says.

That’s important to his business, too. It’s not just about identity, but also that the identity is authentic. The same goes for the stores, which are individually designed to suit the vibe of the location. “We want each store to be an authentic part of the community where it exists,” Callaway says, and in the Buckhead store, that includes reusing bricks from an old Midtown building designed by famed Atlanta architect Need Reid.

“Live authentically” is a slogan Callaway says the company has trademarked.

“My biggest peeve about the fashion world is so many people are just making things up to seem authentic,” he said.

The company name reflects the sense of authentic spirit. It’s named for Onward, Mississippi, the area where then President Teddy Roosevelt refused to kill a bear specially captured for him during a hunt, deeming it unsportsmanlike, an incident that drew national headlines and was exploited for the now-iconic toy teddy bear. A bear is the company’s logo. Callaway says he likes the story of Roosevelt’s integrity and the widespread meaning of the bear.

“Who has not been impacted by the teddy bear?” he says.

The current Onward Reserve headquarters in Buckhead. (John Ruch)

Callaway says this approach is what ties customers to his brand. A $100-plus golf shirt isn’t for everyone, and that’s exactly why his business works. “If all you need is a shirt to cover your back, Onward Reserve is probably not the most economical,” he says, explaining that it’s all about that identity. (The company also sells more affordable trinkets and accessories, so most anyone can participate in the brand, he adds.)

“Retail as a whole is in trouble… I would not be buying stock in a department store right now,” says Callaway, but he believes that real experiences can prevail in the digital age. “I still like going into a store and interacting with human beings.”

For more information, see onwardreserve.com.

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