Sneaker heads thrive on custom shoes and restoration

by Britt Chester

On a blustery November day, when the branches have been all but stripped of foliage and the ground is a graveyard of dampened browned and yellowed leaves, Eric Snow sits in his Greensboro apartment watching football in a pair of sweatpants, a comfortable hoodie, and a pair of crisp throwback sneakers, the soles of which are as white as the impending seasonal precipitation.

“I’ve been at it for six or seven years,” said Snow, 29, commenting on his passion and fervor for shoes. “Around 2007, I picked up four or five pairs for around $350. I would wear ’em, they’d get worn down, and I’d pass ’em off to someone else. That’s how I grew up. I’ve probably passed off a lot of old stuff that if I knew now would be worth crazy money.”

Snow has a passion for sneakers. A lust. An unquenchable thirst. Thankfully for the young entrepreneur, the market for sneakers is booming. In his own collection that fills the various closets in his apartment, lines the floorboards of the living room at times, and lay around his office, Snow is sitting on roughly 150 pairs of sneakers, ranging from early and pre-2000 Air Jordans, limited edition runs of certain color-ways, and assorted hard to find editions from various brands.

This past May, Snow got together with two people, Brandon Stinnett and Anderson Howard, whom he met in a Facebook group just for sneaker heads in Greensboro. The trio started a company, Sole Defender, and has not looked back.

Sole Defender was born out of the necessity of sneaker heads wanting to use and resell sneakers, or to simply just keep the soles crisp and clean for personal pride.

The product is very simple. On a roll, the template for sneakers is cut out to fit everything up to around size 15 shoes. The bottom of the thick vinyl sticker has a rough grit on it, which is to prevent slipping when walking on wet surfaces, or even on ice. How it differs from other products is that it’s thicker than any of the competition, which prevents heel drag from ruining the sneaker (and the resale value) and can even prevent wear and tear from walking down the street. A pair only costs $20, which is an easy amount to recoup on a pair of sneakers that are limited and that the wearer may want to sell later.

“We were going off a product that was already out there. You put it on the bottom of your shoes”¦ people use ’em for Jordans and clear-soled shoes so you can keep your bottoms fresh, ‘keep em icey,’ as they say,” said Howard, 25, known in sneaker circles as AD.

For Snow, it was a business venture to coincide with his enthusiasm for an underworld that people are aware exists, but perhaps not to the extent that the true fans take it.

In Snow’s office, which is the bedroom adjacent to the one he shares with his supportive girlfriend, the walls are lined with various boxes of sneakers for his array of clients. Aside from working in the kitchen at SnackBar in Downtown Greensboro, Snow provides a service to the shoe community: Cleaning, repainting, dyeing, and reselling limited edition runs of some of the most popular, and valuable shoes.

“For a clean job, I’m charging anywhere from $60 to $80, but if it needs glue, or paint, or anything else, the price goes up,” Snow said.

“You can take a pair of shoes and do anything you want with it. You can paint ’em. You can take the soles and make them glow in the dark. You can take them apart and put snakeskin on it and put it back together. You can be Nike,” he said.

At any given time, Snow has more than 30 pairs of shoes for clients. His desk looks like that of a classical painter: Varying hues from the entire spectrum are scattered atop the corner desk; Brushes of all shapes and sizes fill empty mixing cups; Glues and cleaners lay in waiting next to a pair of blood-red Air Jordan XIIIs, a classic sneaker among the aficionados.

“I just learned this from trial and error,” Snow said. “No one was doing this around here and I wanted to try it out.”

That trial and error once bit him in the ass, and he was forced to approach his client with an offer to either purchase the sneakers at the pre-valued price, or offer him a pair from his private collection.

Since he began cleaning, and seeing the market for it, he’s watched his clientele increase thanks almost entirely to Facebook and Instagram, which is also how the news of Sole Defender has spread like wildfire throughout the sneaker community.

Since May, AD, Stinnett and Snow have peddled more than 1,500 pairs of Sole Defenders to clients as far as Australia, and even sold wholesale to a company called Turtle Feathers Inc. in Raleigh. Turtle Feathers also happens to be where Snow purchases his paints and dyes for his customizing.

“Turtle Feathers is one of the largest paint suppliers on the east coast. They have glow-in-the-dark pigments, dyes, paints, cleaners, droppers, brushes”¦they have it all,” Snow said.

But the custom sneaker industry wouldn’t even be around if it weren’t for the original sales of the sneakers, which is where stores like Greensboro’s Social Status and Kosmic Kickz come into play.

“Cleaning and dyeing is a great business to get into,” said Rasheed Burke, the 25-year old store manager at Social Status located at 602 Elm Street in downtown Greensboro. “There are people with these beat shoes and they can turn ’em around and resell ’em for $350.”

Burke has been with Social Status for almost six years.

Upon moving from New York to Charlotte, Burke was given an internship with the store, formerly Flava Factory, and was offered a full-time position because of his dedication and drive.

He ended up moving to Greensboro, where he now attends Guilford Technical Community College on the path to receiving a degree in business administration.

“Some people only want sneakers to resell, and the resell has a lot to do with how sneakers are right now,” Burke added. “That ruins the sneaker game. Places are offering raffles and lotteries for releases. We are one of the only places that does it first-come-first-served. It’s fair that way.”

Sneakers in Social Status range anywhere from $100 for a standard pair of New Balance running shoes, to over $200 for a limited edition pair of Nikes. Given that Burke has been in the industry and has been able to watch trends change and grow, he noted that the Air Jordan Brand – Nike, for that matter – really started the trend in making sneakers a commodity.

But Social Status also carries a wide variety of brands that are not carried at your typical shoe store. Aside from the craze surrounding basketball shoes, New Balance, Asics, and Saucony are three other brands that can be just as difficult to come by given the limited amount of production on the style and certain colors.

“Back in the day when I was in high school and middle school, if it wasn’t hot, you could find ’em on the shelf. The (Nike) brand made it more limited. They saw everyone selling it on Ebay and they made it more limited.”

Other brands seem to be following suit to meet the growing demand for uniqueness in the sneaker game.

The sneaker industry, and the niche market that follows it, will pay top dollar for the right pair of sneakers. In 2012, a pair of Air Jordan 4s, the “Motorsports” edition, sold for upwards of $5,000. Not bad for something that retailed under $200.

“You see, there is everything that Nike does, and then there is everything else, which is basically the non-Nike umbrella,” Burke said.

Anderson “AD” Howard, who is the store manager for Sole Konnect, a sneaker boutique located at 3919 High Point Rd. in the Westgate Shopping Center, thinks that the sneaker game has gotten out of control. At Sole Konnect, the idea is to repurpose sneakers to offer them to everyone.

“We buy, sell, trade and we do exactly what everyone else does, we just do it in a boutique,” Howard said. In the store, he’s constantly checking orders from interested fans that hear about the store’s inventory via the Instagram account where they post new stock daily, almost hourly.

“The whole goal was to save the sneaker game,” he added.

Saving the sneaker game, though, is hard when you’ve been on both sides. Or is it?

With Howard’s expertise in the field of shoes – knowing the value, knowing what it takes to resell, knowing what it takes to repurpose – he was an obvious choice to run the store.

Sole Konnect’s walls are lined with shoes that you saw running up and down basketball courts back in the early 2000s and 90s.

Patrick Ewing special editions. Shawn Kemp splatter paint color-ways. Shoes with labels like “Foamposite.” And, of course, Air Jordan’s from the past twenty years in varying colors.

All of these shoes, or at least some depending on the limited releases, are also available new at Social Status and another store, Kosmic Kickz.

“We want to offer low prices, so even the kids who can’t afford to spend $200 on shoes, they can still get it,” Howard said.

Howard also said that he enjoys volunteering and donating sneakers because one of his biggest things is rallying against bullying, which he knows for some low income homes can be attributed to sneakers and attire.

But at Kosmic Kickz, the demeanor of the store is laid back. Daniel Heath, a 39-year old self-proclaimed “collector” sits behind the desk at the back of the store listening to music and stand-up comedy routines on the Internet.

For Heath, shoes used to be a reason to wake up in the morning, but now he said it’s just become a business, and he likes it that way. There was a time when he was buying three or four pairs per week depending on the city he was in, just to own them.

“It would have to be over 300 pairs in my collection, and I’ve been collecting since ’94,” he said, cracking a smile as if humbly bragging about his investment. “I got stuff that I’ve never worn before. In the beginning, it was more or less just to have it, but as the years go by, you keep adding on and adding on and you just push ’em to the back.”

Kosmic Kickz sits in a small strip mall at 3613 Spring Garden Street. Tucked away in the corner, you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. And those looking know exactly where it is. Once you’re inside, the world changes. Glowing and sparkling Nike shwooshes run up and down the walls, pink suede and electric blue shoes sit on under-lit tabletops.

Heath doesn’t really concern himself with the Jordan brand of sneakers anymore. “I’m an Adidas fan first and foremost,” he exclaims, alluding to the famed Superstar model that would become one of the most iconic shoes to date. After Kareem Adbul-Jabbar and Run-D.M.C. became the notable figures to rock the shoes, the sneaker culture was never the same.

“I’ve always wore different stuff, but that’s just because I’m not the type of person to gravitate to what the masses are liking,” Heath said.

The market for sneakers in Greensboro, depending on who you ask and when, is fickle. For stores like Social Status, which offers high-end fashion items as well as the limited and branded sneakers, business seems to be pretty steady throughout every season. At Kosmic Kickz, Heath noted that because it is primarily a college-, high school-, and middle school-driven business, the summer months remained the slowest for them throughout the years.

“I look at it as though when school is not in, they don’t need to get fresh, but when school comes back, it kicks right back in,” said Heath.

In the brief time speaking with Heath, an eager customer came in looking for a certain pair of shoes, Jordans, to be exact, that will not be released until Dec. 20. No amount of convincing, begging, or even hints at bribery could get Heath to sway on taking prepayment from the customer in order to guarantee her the shoes she wanted so badly for her son.

JP Matlock, an employee at Social Status who originally favored fashion to shoes, recognized how wrong his thoughts were on the sneaker industry being primarily geared towards people his age, 23, and the near-year demographic.

“One of our best customers is in his 50s and he has a collection of around 400 pairs. That’s another cool thing, before working so close to sneakers, I just thought it was limited to my demographic, but it’s cool to see it span generations,” Matlock said.

Matlock said that at this point in his career, even just two years in, he is able to determine nearly without fail what someone’s shoes say about the wearer. He can tell what profession they are in, where they probably purchased (within bounds of reason) and whether or not they really care about sneakers.

“You can tell a lot about a person by the way the way they dress,” Matlock admitted, though clearing the air on personal judgments. “If their occupation is artist, or business man, or whatever.”

The fact is that sneakers are the connection to the earth, and the people who pay that much attention to the medium are essentially just caring about how they connect. The connection, though, to other sneaker heads, is palpable and ripe.

“I talk to people based on their shoes,” said Snow, “and I’m like, ‘if you ever want to sell ’em, here’s my card.” Snow once purchased a pair of special edition Leroy Jenkins Air Jordans off of an employee at Target. He paid $40 for them, cleaned them up, and resold for profit.

The business of sneakers, at least for Snow, is not that of your typical retail store. Although he makes money doing it, the hobby is what he loves most about it. It’s something for him to do between shifts manning the grill at SnackBar. It’s also become a way to meet people in the community that he would otherwise never come in contact with.

“I get all my business from Facebook,” he admitted.

“Years ago, my Facebook messenger was random, but now it’s everyday.” He then read the flood of messages that ranged from gratitude from satisfied clients, to ones wondering about tracking numbers, to others inquiring about shoe sizes that he may have in stock for sale.

“Like my friend Tony. Tony’s boy gets his shoes cleaned by me, and Tony’s boy works at the hookah shop, and Tony runs a nail salon. I take care of them, they take care of me.”

What started as just a hobby has turned into a business, and that business is turning into a good one for three friends who met on the Internet. !