The men hustling into the Independence Holiday Inn are skipping like British schoolchildren, trying to keep the slush from ruining the prized possessions on their feet. They've been waiting months for this day. Mother Nature is not cooperating.
They head to a convention room that's filled with the scent of freshly processed leather, like a bakery awash with the smell of dough. With the proud care of old ladies displaying baubles at a flea market, vendors have laid out neat rows of shoes on tables ringing the room. Welcome to Cleveland's Got Sole.
Billed as a "shoe summit and showcase," it aims to court an obsessive cult: people who have taken their devotion to athletic shoes to scholarly heights. They're the kind who amass collections of rare sneakers well into the hundreds, believe some pairs are too valuable to ever be worn, and revere Nike CEO Phil Knight the way Middle-earth nerds do Peter Jackson.
They're called sneakerheads. This is their first legit powwow in Cleveland.
Among the vendors is Tony Smalls, here to showcase his Air Jordan collection. He's wearing a blazer with a pocket handkerchief and a tilted Bulls cap, color-coordinated with the Jordan IIIs on his feet. "My ma got me started on it," the 27-year-old explains of this shoe fetish. "She bought me my first Jordans when I was in fifth grade, in '92, when Nike dropped the IIIs. I done grew up with them."
Mom is here too, wearing Jordans herself. "These are OG thirteens, right?" Tonja Jefferson asks of her son, who nods knowingly. OG means original issue — not a retro version created years later. It's all Smalls collects, all he wears, and all he buys his mom. To other sneakerheads, wearing OGs is crazy, making his collection worth thousands less. But Smalls is a traditionalist; it's still about looking fresh.
Erich Dela Cruz, who drove over from Chicago, is among the new guard. For him, it's all about rarity and value. He specializes in Nike samples — prototypes used by company sales reps. He also peddles wear-tests, pairs given to athletes and employees six months before a model's release.
"I know a guy," Dela Cruz explains of his access.
Shoe companies condemn the practice; it's how eBay-trolling counterfeiters get their hands on pre-release sneakers to replicate design and materials. But with the shoes selling for thousands each, there's not much Nike can do to stop it.
Dela Cruz lays claim to sneakers too valuable to breathe on, much less wear, so he displays his collection in locked glass cases. He points to the Air Jordan logo on one pair that's stamped with a random grouping of letters. It's a Nike code, he explains with the affection of an art collector. "You can't put a price on this pair."
He's interrupted by a jittery fortysomething flanked by his blond son. John Jordan is desperate to make a deal for Dela Cruz's pair of sample Jordan XXIIIs, and he'll pay cash. His attic in Silver Lake is stocked with $120,000 worth of never-worn Air Jordans. His plan is to build the collection for another 10 years, then sell it in Japan, where people pay big for a lot that size.
His obsession was originally spurred for less-than-obsessive reasons: "I just think it's because I used to play basketball, my last name's Jordan, and I used to live in Chicago when he was starting out."
As a rookie in 1985, Michael Jordan was fined $5,000 by the NBA for every game he wore his Jordan I's on court. The red-and-black shoes didn't fit the league's design rules.
But Nike happily paid his fines — it couldn't beat the publicity. It was a marketing coup that managed to achieve counterculture status for the megacorporation. Hard-core sneaker culture, married to hip-hop and buoyed by such free advertisements as Run DMC's "My Adidas," has been playing the rebel ever since.
The shoe companies have proved geniuses at the game. Nike, for example, steadily pumps out limited-edition releases for standard prices, then watches lines snake for blocks around stores while monitoring the resale prices on eBay. Nothing makes a product look more desirable than people camping out to buy it. Even Dela Cruz's contraband samples generate a pre-release buzz that can't be achieved by advertising.
Today, there are magazines (Sneaker Freaker), fan sites (niketalk.com), and documentaries (Just for Kicks). In most major cities, so many sneaker boutiques have popped up that it's hard to classify it as a subculture.
But as with most things trendy, Cleveland has been late to the party. Before last year, the city harbored no boutiques. Since shopping at Foot Locker, to a sneakerhead, is akin to Michael Symon browsing produce at Sav-A-Lot, Clevelanders were forced to road-trip to New York and Chicago.
So in October, three entrepreneurs set out to fill the demand. Vince Manzano and Kevin Washington, both 18, and Kenny Bencke, 19, opened what they claim is Cleveland's first boutique. Heart and Sole on Coventry was started "because we wanted a place to find sneakers," says Bencke.
But the struggle began as soon as the doors opened. Business was slow to catch on, and sneaker corporations haven't helped. While Heart and Sole stocks New Balance and Reebok, Nike refuses to do business. "They want people that have sneaker-industry experience, or at least retail business experience," says Manzano. "Starting a boutique without any connections in the industry is taboo."
Similarly, Heart and Sole's two attempts to put on sneaker expos were thwarted by low turnout and nonexistent security — a big concern with such expensive merchandise. It took two Akron neighbors to plan Cleveland's Got Sole.
Kevin Kramer, a home-stereo salesman, and Todd Prelerson, a Finish Line manager, seem like normal family guys — except that Kramer lays claim to a $30,000 sneaker collection, and Prelerson's already bought his one-month-old daughter, named Jordan, 50 pairs of baby Jordans.
"It's a little wild," says Candice Prelerson of her husband's obsession. "It's more severe now than ever before."
To ensure security, they planned it for early afternoon and hired an undercover guard. They awarded trophies for the best collections and offered game-worn LeBrons to auction for charity. DJ Terry Urban, a sneaker fetishist himself, donated his services. In the end, the expo raised $2,000 for the Finish Line Youth Foundation, a charity providing grants to athletic programs.
To Manzano, it all means he and his friends will no longer have to pilgrimage to Chicago. "I never did camp out in front of a store," he says with something like regret. "Maybe we'll camp out in front of our own store."