GLOVERSVILLE - In 2004, Michael Bokan cast a virtual line into cyberspace to see if anything would bite. Nearly 10 years later, it's clear he caught a big one.
It was in then that Bokan created what has become a formidable online presence in fly-fishing gear with more than 30,000 recipients of the company's newsletter. To get an idea of the volume, the company filled 600 orders last week, and that was when it was supposed to be "closed" for the move from 15 W. Fulton St. to the former Jewish Community Center at 28 E. Fulton St.
Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Bokan worked as a software engineer for a company in Saratoga. That company lost its largest client - accounting for 80 percent of the revenue - and was forced to lay off employees. Bokan wasn't laid off, but he did take a 10 percent pay cut.
Fly Shack owner Mike Bokan poses Thursday outside his new location, the former Jewish Community Center on East Fulton Street in Gloversville.
(Photo by Amanda May Metzger/The Leader-Herald)
"The idea was to sell a few flies online to try to make that up," Bokan said. "Eventually it just exploded and took off more than I ever imagined."
The original idea was to sell on eBay, but being a software engineer, Bokan designed his own website instead. In fact, all the business software is designed in house by Bokan, a huge savings for the company. He even designed an app for his employees to use when filling orders.
Initially Bokan tried with a friend to sell fly patterns, too, but, "a business with one product doesn't work that well," Bokan said.
"We still sell those cards and have actually made a profit on them finally," Bokan added.
About six years ago Bokan's business had outgrown his home in Saratoga County. When it was time to buy a storefront, Gloversville stood out.
"I really didn't know anything about Gloversville. I happened to stumble upon some listings here and was blown away by what it had to offer for properties. Very reasonably priced. It seemed like a pretty nice city. Of course it's no secret there have been economic hard times in Gloversville with the loss of glove mills and such," Bokan said.
Bokan owns the former Fly Shack building too, and he said it will likely go on the market, or he will entertain the idea of renting to a business.
Bokan said his manager Will Reed had been pushing for more space for years.
"We have the room we need to have now," Reed said
When the JCC went on the market, Bokan was already looking for a larger property, and of all of them - including an old manufacturing site - the JCC was the best maintained.
Now the show room space is more than doubled from 700 square feet at the old Fly Shack to 1,700 square feet at the new location, which had its grand opening Saturday.
In the old space, Fly Shack could display 250 to 300 types of flies. Now Bokan said almost 1,000 flies will be displayed. That doesn't touch how many the business has in inventory - 1,100 styles and four to five sizes of each.
Bokan said about 95 percent of his business is online, but with the brand-new renovated showroom, he hopes to increase the number of retail on-site sales.
The website, www.flyshack.com, offers trout flies, bass flies, salmon and steelhead flies and saltwater flies. There's a category of gifts for the fly fisher, fly tying tools, ice fishing gear and more.
Fly Shack also carries the Simms line of apparel including multi-layered waders with Gortex and a waterproof zipper.
Bokan points to the back wall of the show room, waders hanging, boots displayed on shelves, backpacks and other accessories hung neatly.
"We couldn't do this at our old location," he said. Same goes for the fishing rods displayed near the front.
The new space allows Fly Shack to offer more of the in-store retail experience. It also means more room to fill online orders and more storage space.
Bokan estimated the total renovations to JCC will run around $100,000 to $120,000, and that includes roof repair, flooring, electrical work and replacing the boiler and other work to make the building more energy efficient.
Walls were knocked down in the front to make space opening what was once several different rooms into a large showroom.
The fireplace remains in the front, and Bokan repurposed two trophy cases original to the building into display cases for fishing reels.
The lower level basement where the pool, locker rooms, fitness rooms and sauna are located is used as a basement. Bokan said the pool is drained and its doors are locked, and it will remain that way.
Above the main level are the gymnasium and auditorium, currently being used for storage and filling orders.
"That's the space of possibilities," Bokan said. That could mean space for classes on rod building and fly tying or casting classes.
"There are so many things that could be done with it," Bokan said.
Bokan didn't know much about Gloversville when he moved his business to the city, but as he's gotten to know it and its residents, the importance of the 17,000 square-foot Art Deco building he now owns is clear.
That's why Bokan says he sees himself as a steward of the building. Should his business outgrow it or move, it could become a community center again, he said, and that's why he wants to keep its character.
"We were very fortunate customers have chosen us and allowed us to expand to need the space for all this," Bokan said. "There's a lot of emotional ties to this structure. Nine out of 10 people from Gloversville tell me they've been in here at one point in their life. I want to make sure I respect that and don't do anything to upset the community."
Situated in the downtown Historic District, the building was built in the 1920s. It was designed by New York City architect Victor Rigaumont and built by former local contractor Morrell Vrooman.
The Jewish Community Center of Fulton County closed the building in August 2010, and court papers were filed in August 2012 to start the sale of the building from the non-profit to Bokan's business.
Now as his business grows, Bokan has linked his passion for fishing and his sensibility in software building to grow a company and provide seven jobs in the city.
As it grows, that could mean more jobs. In Bokan's mind, the key to growth isn't just about a business plan for profit margains. It's about treating the customer right.
"Concentrate on treating people right. Give them a quality product at an affordable price," Bokan said. "Treat others well, and it comes back to you 10-fold."
Both Bokan and Reed praised the people who work at the Fly Shack calling them "the best crew on the planet."
"We've got a great crew here. It's a lot different than any other job," said Reed, who has been manager for three years.
Bokan said the company's growth and move to the JCC would be impossible without them.
Right now they're all "a little exhaused and tired," he said.
But no matter how busy Bokan gets, he says it's important to have a hobby that allows you to escape the daily grind.
"There is something almost spiritual about standing in the river with the beauty of nature around you. Catching fish is a bonus," Bokan said. "It's about getting out there, relaxing slowing down, and making something the focus of all your efforts that isn't your daily stresses. I guess that's what any good hobby does for you."
Amanda May Metzger can be reached at email@example.com.