For some of us, working at a sneaker store is more than just a paycheck. It’s where we decide that we’re going to make sneakers more than a lifestyle, but our career.
I first got the itch to work in sneakers as a part-timer working at Dick’s Sporting Goods. I can say that, in all honesty, I hated working at Dick’s, but it was also the most helpful sneaker job I ever had. Customers who walked in there didn’t care about the newest Air Jordan releases or which color of Air Max 95s were coming out next. They’d ask me performance-based questions: “What sneakers are good for my arch?” or “What’s the best sneaker for marathons?” Or even questions absurd as, “Which boot will help me on my winter hunting trip to North Dakota?”
I didn’t care about any of these concerns, I was just interested in getting enough money to purchase the next Nike SB release. On a day-to-day basis I felt burdened by #normcoredads who just wanted New Balance 620s. I didn’t realize that, in the process of selling them boring sneakers, I was learning the fundamentals of how sneakers worked—not just how they looked.
I had found a place where I could be myself, and I was getting paid for it.
But this job wasn't "sneaker culture" to me. My co-workers, the same ones who sold sneakers, too, wondered why I thought about sneakers as more than something I put on my feet. They didn't understand why I kept mine pristine or purchased more pairs than I could wear.
No one plans to stay as a store sales associate forever. After picking up a few pairs of Air Max 360s and the first run of Nike Frees for insanely cheap, I left Dick’s to go to college full-time, because I didn't want to be someone who worked 25 hours a week, lived at their parents' house, and spent all their money on sneakers. I thought I was leaving sneaker retail behind me, but I could only get away from slangin' sneakers for so long.
When I came home after the spring semester, I ended up at Foot Locker. It was supposed to be a summer job, but there was something about discussing Jordans, Air Maxes, and the history of Nike Basketball with customers—even if my store didn’t carry any of the premier products—that made my job not feel like one. I had found a place where I could be myself, and I was getting paid for it. There couldn't have been anything more that I wanted to do with my life.
My mind wasn’t focused on reading textbooks when I got back to school that fall. I just wanted to drink countless beers on the weekend, wear my sneakers, and work in that store. So I ended up leaving college to pursue sneaker retail full-time, and no one could tell me otherwise. Why would I want to be a broke college kid who couldn't purchase new sneakers every other week?
I thought I had it made: I was a manager at a sneaker store. I’d work nearly 50 hours a week at a place I didn’t mind being, and I could buy tons of sneakers with an extremely generous discount. But after a while, things started to change.
There was no excitement to go to work anymore. Everyday became routine. I’d see the same mall walkers make their laps in the morning, peering into the store only to ask me if we had laces for Sperry boat shoes—which we never did. I'd have to deal with the people who missed out on sneaker releases. I was even threatened with violence if we didn’t have more than few sneakers in someone’s size, or if someone wanted to return a pair of worn sneakers without a receipt.
Every moment spent in my striped referee uniform was a realization that I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life.
This wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. I was working day in and day out, not accomplishing anything. Long gone were the days of getting hyped with customers about Infrared Air Max 90s. Very few people gave a shit, and they’d just pick up a pair of generic sneakers.
Matt Powell's world of old men who want Monarchs was very real, and I witnessed it firsthand. My excitement and enthusiasm fell on uninterested ears. I needed to get out. I needed change. I had left school to live the life I dreamed of, and it wasn't happening at all. I wasn't just working at the store, the store was working me.
My escape, oddly enough, would be going back to school and finishing up my journalism degree.
I moved to New Jersey to attend Rutgers. But guess what followed me down there? A new part-time sales job at Foot Locker. I was new to the area, I was living on my own, and I hooked up a job the same time that I moved into my new apartment.
The fact that I knew about sneakers and clothes seemed like it didn't matter then. I never knew that I’d be writing about either for a living. Journalism school tried to rope me into writing about politics and traveling to the Middle East to become a war-time reporter. Who wants to worry about dodging bullets when they're more concerned about the next sneaker drop?
I wasn’t about that life. I wanted to write about what I knew. Still, as much as I wanted to make a living off of writing about style, I was stuck working in a sneaker store. Every moment spent in my striped referee uniform was a realization that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. No one dreams of being in their mid-20s and making minimum wage plus commission at a mall inhabited by 15-year olds.
I’d eventually go on to pick up a freelance writer gig with Complex, but I kept my job at Foot Locker to help keep the lights on at my apartment and a burrito and six pack in my stomach. As close as I was to becoming part of the world that had first enticed me into sneaker culture, I was still a retail worker—and the mall, in a nondescript town in central New Jersey, was the furthest thing from the niche sneaker culture we think exists on the Internet.
I had graduated with my degree, but I didn’t have a career yet. Instead, I was stuck explaining to people why I was still putting in a day or two a week at a sneaker store—and sneaking off on my lunch break to write in the Barnes & Noble. I'd scroll through Twitter on my phone in the stock room to find stories, and hope my manager didn't catch me ignoring customers.
You can learn about those things on the Internet, but nothing beats the real experience of dealing with it every day.
Eventually, all the hours and lost time at the sneaker store paid off, and I ended up with a full-time job writing about sneakers. Not only did I have a real career now, but I could stop working at Foot Locker. I was finally free.
It wasn't just because I wanted to get out of the sneaker store so bad, but also because I worked at the sneaker store, too. Without spending almost eight years of my life suggesting to people which sneakers they should buy, I wouldn't have the knowledge, feel, or passion for lacing up a fresh pair. You can learn about those things on the Internet, but nothing beats the real experience of dealing with it every day.
I took a trip down memory lane this past weekend and visited the Foot Locker store I used to work at. I saw some of the same faces that were there four years ago, still plotting their escape from retail. They had the same outlook that I used to have. Sure, they loved sneakers, but working at a sneaker store was never their life plan.
They, like me, loved sneakers too much to not do something that involved them. They weren't cut for careers selling insurance, cars, or whatever gives them a boost in salary—they're still searching for a way to turn their love into something that makes them happy besides working in retail.
But if there's one thing I learned, it's that you have to find what you don't want to do in life in order to figure out what you do want. When you deal with people trolling you in real life or not caring about the latest sneaker release, it, in comparison, makes the Internet comments sting a little less. You have to know how to deal people face to face before you can give them advice online. And I learned all of this in a sneaker store.
Matt Welty is an editorial assistant at Complex and he doesn't miss getting a 30 percent discount on sneakers. You can follow him on Twitter here.