By Noah Davis
NEW YORK -- A thin layer of plaster dust, which grows thicker in his nail beds, covers Marvin's hands. The 26-year-old member of New York City's Local 1 plumbing union came to Basketball City near Manhattan's South Street Seaport straight from work. He's still wearing his red union hat, and a matching shirt peeks out from underneath his black sweatshirt. He carries two shoes: Nike Air Jordan 7 Olympic from 2004 in his left hand and Nike Air Jordan 6 Olympic -- "probably from 2011" -- in his right. Marvin hopes to get $300 for each pair.
"I want to sell them and get a pair of kicks," he tells me. "I want to get the [Air Jordan] Altitude 13s." A kid who can't be older than 15 pauses next to Marvin, eyeing the 7s and absentmindedly flipping through the roll of $20s he holds lightly in his hands. "How much?" he asks. Marvin tells the teen, who considers the offer but decides to try and find a better deal somewhere else. He likely will. There are 3,500 sneakerheads crammed into the large room.
Welcome to SneakerCon, where everyone is wheeling and dealing
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In 2009, the Vinogradov brothers, Alan and Barris, partnered with Yu-Ming Wu in an attempt to capitalize on the growth of sneaker culture. They rented a space in Times Square, charged 20 vendors $100 per table, and sold $10 tickets to the public. More than 1,000 people arrived to buy, sell, and trade their wares. The trio continued to put on the festival, and this year held SneakerCons in Washington D.C., Chicago, Miami, in addition to another in New York in July.
They caught the wave at the perfect time, right before it exploded into the mainstream. Consumers purchased $5 billion worth of athletic footwear online between May 2012 and April 2013, an increase of 21 percent over the previous year, and people will wait for hours, even days, to buy new releases. "We bring together the most important people in the sneaker culture," Alan told me over the phone two weeks before the NYC event. "The guys that have been collecting for decades as well as the little kids who is looking to get his first pair of something fresh."
I asked him if it would be possible to talk to him on the day of the show. "It will be very difficult, unfortunately."
Vinogradov was not lying.
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$20 advance tickets sold out a month prior to the event, but thousands of people stood waiting for 3 p.m., when cash tickets would go on sale. The line ran for three blocks down South Street. Enterprising teenagers walked up and down, holding aloft a single shoe they were looking to sell, the other half of the pair hidden in the box they carried. Other people with more pairs simply displayed their kicks on the pavement, pop-up shops in their purest form. I was taking a picture of one such arrangement that prominently featured four Foot Locker bags when the owner of the bags motioned me over. "You should really be taking a picture of my boy's shoes," the twenty-something said. (SneakerCon attendees were remarkably unconcerned about cameras or being in photos. This is probably a statement about the see-and-be-seen nature of the subculture and also the importance that social media sites like Instagram play in the dissemination of said culture. People were also exceptionally friendly.)
His friend, Danny, dutifully hiked up his jeans a bit to reveal the bright red Air Jordan 3 Doernbechers on his feet. He said he went to all the SneakerCons and that they kept getting bigger. Danny was looking to buy and sell -- "trying to get some and trying to relieve some" -- but the increase in interested participants made making a profit more difficult. "Just now you had one kid saying he wanted $700 for shoes and another kid saying he wanted $600," he said. "Everyone is always trying to outbid each other." A teenager with a shoe on top of a box walked by. Danny offered the kid $500 on the spot. He took it. As they began the exchange, I wandered off to find my way into Basketball City. The line hadn't moved.
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This sounds obvious, but it's worth stating: there were people and shoes everywhere inside, just a mass of humanity and Nike high tops. The vendor tables created a ring around the perimeter of the hanger-sized space with another two rows in the middle. (In addition to shoes, some tables sold gold chains, tee shirts, hats, and customizable socks. There's also a large market for products that claim to make used shoes look new, which we'll get to in a bit.) People without tables set up anywhere they could find a patch of bare floor. Some displays were orderly -- 15 pairs of shiny shoes on a rug with prices attached -- while others looked more like shoe box mountains ready to collapse in an avalanche of cardboard, rubber, and patent leather at any moment.
The audience skewed young and decidedly male. Everyone was hustling in a way that felt, at least to an outsider, mostly innocent and a little ridiculous. Tiny teens with bright colors on their feet repping hard. Guys only a few years older hawking thousands of dollars in merchandise. You can feel the bubble growing, and everyone is simply trying to keep up.
Purchases were generally transacted with cash because no one wants to pay Square a three percent fee, and kids don't have credit cards anyway. And besides, almost everyone I talked to seemed to be interested less in making money and more in selling whatever they had on them so they could afford to buy something new. Bigger and better. Always bigger and better.
Nick was 15 with a sweet smile and started collecting last year. He and some friends drove up from Maryland that morning, and he was taking his turn holding down their collective sneaker fort while the others prowled the space searching for deals. Nick had sold a pair and bought a pair on the day, and was hoping to sell his Space Jam 11s for $270. He wore a pair of Burgundy 5s and hoped to score some Doernbechers. If all went well, he would be wearing them on the drive home that evening. I forgot to ask him who drove.
The presence of so many younger kids is an indication of sneakerdom's relatively low entry barrier. A couple hundred bucks can get you started and the re-sell value can stay high even if you wear your kicks. At one point, I overheard a vendor telling a boy that if he took good care of the shoes, he could sell them at cost in five or six months. "Or," the vendor paused, looking at the kid's father, "what you paid for them." The two adults laughed. The eight-year-old with a not insignificant belly and a bright orange cast on his left wrist didn't.
It's also possible to spend just about as much as you want on sneakers. I found Eric manning a table in the far corner where the scene was calmer, but only marginally so. The 23-year-old owns That Rare Pair, a small spot on Mulberry Street in Soho that he opened in July. He thought that the rise of sneaker culture had made it harder to make a living because "everybody's trying to take advantage, but if you have your own customers, they always come back." While we talked, a kid and his father approached the stand and inquired about the cost of one pair. "$5,000,' Eric replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Admittedly, the LeBron Watch the Throne Samples are nice kicks but five large is, um, a lot. It was too much for the father-son combo, too. "Everybody wants to buy everything but nobody wants to pay," Eric said with a hint of regret as the duo wandered to the next booth.
The LeBrons, however, were not the vendor's most expensive offering. That honor would go to his 2003 Nike Dunk SB Low "Paris". Eric admitted that the $13,00 price tag was a "crazy number," but there was a market. "I got offered $10,000 but I said no right away," he told me, adding that he paid $6,000 for them. "It's worth $13,000 to me. I don't mind keeping it because when I didn't have money, that was the shoe I wanted. Now that I have it, I don't want to let it go unless it's in my favor."
Eric's attitude, an at times contradictory balance between love and commerce, was the prevailing sentiment at SneakerCon. People got into the culture because they wanted the shoes; some of them are now trying to ride the wave and make some cash. (SneakerCon's founders are no different. The Vinogradovs own Osneaker.com, while Wu runs a network of blogs aimed at shoeheads.) It's capitalism, but pretty nakedly so. It's not harmless -- I'm sure newbies get taken advantage of frequently -- but it feels pretty benign and the stakes aren't huge.
And it extends beyond sneakers. Travis Smith, the CEO of clothing line Straight to the League, bought two tables and spread out the shirts and hats his company designs to go with individual drops. They create new apparel for all the Jordans as well as some Foamposites, LeBrons, and Kobes. But he is a shoe collector, too. "These shows help me get my sneaker addiction out," he said. "I'm selling some things I have duplicates of. Some of these are back from when I was in high school, man. I've done well today. I've sold about 30 pairs." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added that he sold 25 or 30 shirts, too.
Smith's booth was near the entrance, so I decided it was time to go. Between the constant jostling for space and the blasting music played by a DJ located on the upper level, I had had enough. I walked outside, trailing a teen with a garbage bag full of shoes slung over his shoulder, leaving behind thousands of people, more thousands of shoes, and wall-hanging parents who waited for their kids to return from the maw with something new to put over their socks.
The line to get in still stretched down South Street. Danny and his Doernbechers were gone, either inside or having given up, but other groups of two, three, or four friends replaced his gang. It was a calm scene, sneaker-lovers steeling themselves against the cold Saturday evening air, waiting to be let into Basketball City. A couple cops stood watch over the proceedings, ignoring the Ferrari with the KicksonFire.com logo that sat illegally parked in the lot behind them. They were deep in conversation. I caught a brief snippet as I walked by: "C'mon, I know you got some sneakers..."
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