Jose Rodriguez, 36, of Little Village estimates he owns 300 to 400 pairs… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Carrie Bradshaw? Amateur.
Imelda Marcos, the famous shoe collector? Beginner.
When it comes to shoe fanatics, sneaker collectors hunting down the latest pair of retro Air Jordans are on a whole other level.
People sometimes "look at you like you're nuts," said Ric McCallister of Glenview, a sneaker collector who has waited in line at the NikeTown on Michigan Avenue more times than he can count. "People on the outside are totally amazed that a man could have 300 or 400 pairs of shoes."
But McCallister isn't alone. In fact, he said there are hundreds in Chicago with collections on par with his 400-500 pairs.
"Chicago's huge for sneaker heads," he said.
As shoe collectors, fans and basketball-playing kids continue to snap up Bulls player Derrick Rose's AdiZero shoe line, others are going nuts over the release of Nike Air Jordans. Recently, there were riots at stores selling the Jordans in North Carolina, Florida and Georgia, as well as the highly coveted Nike Galaxy foamposite shoes, now going for $1,200 or more on resale websites.
"That Galaxy release was absolute madness," said Nick DePaula, creative director at Portland-based Sole Collector magazine. But the "ultimate" shoe changes constantly, and today's Galaxy could be tomorrow's Air Yeezy 2. There's always a new shoe to lust after.
According to the National Shoe Retailers Association, retail footwear is a $48 billion-a-year industry. And last year Americans spent $17.6 billion on athletic footwear, the National Sporting Goods Association reports. While it's impossible to say just how many of those sneakers go to fans like McCallister, DePaula said the athletic-shoe-collecting industry is booming.
DePaula said the sneaker-collecting hobby hit its stride in 2003-04, when blogs and online auction sites such as eBay exploded in popularity. DePaula said the typical sneaker-head is a man (92 percent of those on his website are guys, he said), 15 to 23 years old, with a collection of shoes in the 25- to 50-pair range. Things have changed since the early days of brand-name sneakers, DePaula said, when a kid might have to beg for months to get a $100 pair of shoes – if he ever got them at all. The typical $220 asking price for sneakers is now nothing special.
Jose Rodriguez, 36, of Little Village, remembers the shoe that started it all: the original Air Jordan. Fans obsessed with Michael Jordan's basketball skills found a natural transition to emulate his style.
"It started with me growing up in Chicago," said Rodriguez, who estimates he owns 300 to 400 pairs of athletic shoes. But he doesn't call himself a collector, even though he owns "way more sneakers than a normal person should own."
His most cherished pair isn't a limited-edition rarity—they are his Air Force Max shoes, similar to the ones Charles Barkley used to wear. Rodriguez vividly remembers how he had to beg in high school for the shoes. If his entire collection disappeared, he said he'd first replace those.
"That was a significant sneaker in my life," he said. "For me, it's always been more about the moments than the dollar value."
It's a common refrain: Most shoe fanatics aren't amassing collections to make money. Nike senior designer Jason Petrie, who worked with LeBron James to design his shoes, said celebrity cachet sometimes hooks fans. If they love Jordan, they also love the memory of watching him make a spectacular playoff shot in his Jordans. The shoes remind them of those memories, Petrie said.
"The moments that people associate with those shoes is what makes them special," said Petrie, who himself began as a collector and shoe lover. He remembers selling hisG.I. Joetoy collection to buy a pair of sneakers in seventh grade. "Some of us just get the sickness."
Feeding that sneaker addiction doesn't come cheap, McCallister said. He generally pays about $200 for a pair, but exclusive or hard-to-find shoes can cost $1,000 or more. He passes on pricier kicks, saying "at $1,500, groceries are more important."
Once the cash is in hand, the next step is tracking down the perfect shoe. It's no easy task when some stores get only a few dozen pairs of sought-after shoes. People often wait in long lines, willing to swap sizes if they don't get theirs in time. Rodriguez said he generally gets his shoes through friends and other sneaker-heads who know his size and hook him up when they run into a pair he'd like.
"The sneaker world is large, but it's small at the same time," he said. "Networking is a huge aspect. When you go to eBay, you're paying five times retail."
For many, a collection of kicks starts slowly. Perhaps you pick up a shoe you love, and it snowballs from there.
"It's kind of like any hobby where there's a collectible nature to it. If you have Jordans 6, 7 and 8, you want to get 5, 9 and everything around it," DePaula said. "Once you cross the threshold ... then you really start to go after certain models."
DePaula's own collection is in the 600-pair range, but like many sneaker geeks, he doesn't have an exact count.
"I have shoes in basically every closet," he said. "It looks like a Foot Locker wall in the basement."
And yes, sneaker-heads wear their shoes. For the most part, anyway.
"There are lots of people who buy them as pieces of art. That's cool and all," Rodriguez said. But then, "you spent all this money on something that's sitting in your house. They're meant to be worn."
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