In the beginning, there were no sneaker shops in New York City. There were no sneaker shops anywhere. Why would have there been? Sneakers were a utilitarian good, no different than a pair of jeans or a tennis racket. They were found at sporting goods stores, at surplus stores, at clothing stores. Then, sometime in the late ’70s, that changed.
That first wave of sneaker shops, covered so well in Bobbito García’s 2003 book Where’d You Get Those?, made New York City the hub of what would come to be known as sneaker culture. Gerry Cosby’s spot sold impossible-to-find team-issue Nikes; “Jew Man” in the Bronx had all the Air Force 1s; Carlsen Imports and Peck and Chase downtown had everything. Some shops chose their stock carefully, others just put stuff out and let the customers choose. Sneaker culture wasn’t born, it was made.
You saw someone wearing a dope pair of sneakers, you asked where they got them
and—if you were lucky—they put you on to a spot.
Back then it wasn’t so top-down. Brands couldn’t reach consumers as easily and as personally as they do today. You saw someone wearing a dope pair of sneakers, you asked where they got them and—if you were lucky—they put you on to a spot. “I first heard about [Jew Man] when I was on 125th and asked some kid where he got his silver and white AF1s,” says veteran hip-hop A&R and executive Dante Ross, a lifetime New Yorker. “He told me, ‘Jew Man, off Simpson.’ I acted like I knew but I didn’t.” You found out about a spot, then you shared it with your friends. “I took my wild crew from Brooklyn there, five deep, ready for war, box cutters and all,” Ross says. “They thought it was gonna be like The Warriors. I was telling ’em they were tripping.” By the early ’90s, chain stores like Foot Locker and Athlete’s Foot emerged, and that first wave of independents faded away.
But they weren’t forgotten. And right around the turn of the millennium, a second wave of independent sneaker shops rose to take their place. They were started by those who ran the old shops, like Udi Avshalom, and those who shopped at them, like García and graffiti artist Stash. Some, like ALIFE’s Rivington Club, survived. Most didn’t, supplanted by similar shops run by the brands themselves. What follows is a bit of ’90s and early 2000s sneaker history, a show-and-tell about some of the best sneaker stores in the city that are no longer here.
Original photo via Freshness Mag
Address: 359 Lafayette St.
What’s there now: Empty space
Graffiti legend Stash, who’d collaborated on sneakers with several brands, opened Nort 235 in November 2001 at 235 Eldridge Street in a lesser-traveled area of Soho. The tiny sneaker store featured exposed-brick walls and metal hardware fabricated by Williamsburg mountain bike mavens Brooklyn Machine Works. Stash’s collabs, including his famous city-specific, phat-cap patterned Nike Air Force 1 highs, sold there along with a carefully curated selection from Nike and other brands.
In late 2005, Nort moved to a bigger, loft-like ground-floor space on Lafayette between Bleecker and Bond and joined forces with Recon, the Futura-owned shop that had occupied the space next door to Nort 235 on Eldridge. Rebranded as Nort/Recon, the new shop expanded beyond sneakers, selling everything from limited edition clothing and snowboards to vinyl toys and New Era fitteds. More than a fusion of two stores, it represented the coming together of two visionary graffiti artists, both of whom had started painting in the streets and expanded to galleries. In the end, following a flood at the space, Nort/Recon relocated to Brooklyn in 2009 and closed for good shortly thereafter.
Original photo via NY Chinatown
Address: 267 Lafayette St.
What’s there now: Bottega Falai restaurant
Dan Jebbia, brother of Supreme co-founder James Jebbia, opened Clientele in the old X-Large space in 2004. (Get it? Supreme Clientele?) The shop, which was located just a block down and across the street from Supreme on Lafayette, didn’t last long at all, but it made a significant impact. Like Supreme, it stocked Nike SB and Vans as well as store-branded tees, but it also branched out to carry New Balance and streetwear brands like "Mike," Scott Nelson's ill-fated ode to Nike and Michael Jordan.
Clientele’s sparse space had most of the shoes on the wall, with rare and more expensive models behind the counter. Buoyed by the sneaker expansion of the early to mid 2000s, it closed its doors for the last time in 2009 and was briefly replaced by a clothing-centric offshoot of Flight Club, which itself didn’t last long either, shuttering in 2010.
Original photo via Alexander Juan
Address: 298 Elizabeth St.
What’s there now: Venus clothing store
Located in the old Def Jam space at 298 Elizabeth Street, Classic Kicks, which opened in 2003, was classic in every sense of the word. The shop helped revive a number of styles and brands that had been missing from New York City for generations. Long before The General existed, Classic Kicks was the go-to spot for Vans, from standards to the shop’s own collaborations with the brand, as well as relaunched styles from Puma and ASICS.
The shop closed in 2010 for the usual reasons—rent was outrageous—and, like many of the other more recent spots featured here, it may simply have just been ahead of its time. Founder Nick Santora has kept the Classic Kicks name alive through his website, where he posts interviews, scanned catalog pages, and vintage ads. It’s invaluable sneaker history that, through his shop, he is now an indelible part of.
Original photo via Uptown Skate School
Address: 225 Hudson St.
What’s there now: Concepts pop-up store
Founded by pro skater Vinny Ponte in 2004 as a, well, rival to Supreme, Rival was far west on Hudson Street, a block above Canal Street and right next to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. It opened right at the peak of the Nike SB craze and capitalized on it, selling skate shoes and also becoming the go-to spot for decks and a place for skaters to hang out. The rail out front was covered with stickers, and a grind box sometimes found its way outside. The shop was essentially the Zoo York mixtape video brought to life, only with all the limited Nike SB releases.
Like the SB craze itself, Rival didn’t last long. In 2009, it was replaced by the Manhattan outpost of Brooklyn streetwear shop Boundless NY, which closed a few years after that. Recently, the old Rival space was reborn as Concepts’ NYC outpost, utilizing the same exposed brick interior and wide open East-facing front windows to great effect.
NIKEiD Design Studio
Original photo via Brendan Fintayson
Address: 255 Elizabeth St.
What’s there now: Kit and Ace clothing store
Before NIKEiD became a ubiquitous thing, there was the design studio on Elizabeth Street in SoHo, which opened in March 2005 and lasted just two years. It was invitation-only, didn’t advertise itself with signage, and also served as Nike’s signature space before 21 Mercer opened in 2008. Nike introduced new models and held events at the space, but the real draw was the studio’s iD capabilities. Only three people were allowed in at a time, to partake in hour-long sessions with assistance from a Nike designer (including laser maestro Mark Smith)—and often with models and options that weren’t available online to the general public. Plain grey samples of each shoe lined the walls and tables to give a three-dimensional idea of how designs would work. Once finished, a customer left with a color printout of their design in a leather folder. It was a truly bespoke experience.
In 2007, a NIKEiD studio opened at Niketown NYC, and then at 21 Mercer (now Nike Lab). Ironically it’s a smaller space at Nike Lab, but somehow it feels less intimate than the old Elizabeth Street space.
Original photo via Lacebag
Address: 1079 Sixth Ave.
What’s there now: Under construction
A sneaker lifer, Udi Avshalom started out working in his parents’ store when he was 12. The family shop became Soho’s Broadway Sneakers—a discount store where they customized their white-on-white adidas Superstars using paint from nearby Pearl Paints. In 1997, Avshalom turned it into Training Camp. At its height, there were multiple cavernous midtown locations, one directly across from Bryant Park. Nike was a focus, but Training Camp carried a wide variety of brands and catered to a diverse clientele, ranging from European tourists to Ghostface Killah. Its offerings were expansive enough to build entire outfits, not just cop the latest sneakers.
Training Camp’s locations closed in 2010, as sneaker retail moved increasingly online, and Avshalom’s involvement in sneakers shifted more into running brands, such as Rocawear and Recon, than selling them at retail.
Original photo courtesy of Bobbito Garcia
Address: 323 E 9th St., Basement
What’s there now: Empty space
Sure, it said “Footwork” right in the name, but Bobbito García’s spot on the Lower East Side reflected his broad range of interests, from sneakers, fat laces, and T-shirts to hip-hop and magazines documenting the culture. It was a place to pick up a compilation from Fondle ’Em, Bobbito’s vinyl-only label, the latest copy of Ego Trip, and a pair or two of crispy kicks all at the same time. The shop lasted four years, from ’96 to 2000, as a finely curated selection of Bobbito’s own aesthetic. That was back when word-of-mouth was literal, media meant a page (or a fraction of one) in a magazine, and 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue wasn’t the high-traffic area that it is now.
That said, Bobbito’s Footwork actually had a Nike account, though it took him two years to get one. The shop wasn’t immune to business mistakes, however. Bobbito once ordered a full-size run of the 1999 Nike Dunk reissue, only to have the shoes sit on the shelf until they had to be put on sale. Like Classic Kicks, Bobbito’s Footwork occupied a space that formerly housed hip-hop history: It was the original home of legendary record shop Fat Beats before it moved to a bigger space on Sixth Avenue. Fat Beats is gone now, too, closed in 2010. It too was unable to keep up with rising rents, increased competition, and a little thing called the Internet.