The Life of a Sneaker Hunter in 2016

How the times have changed.

By

I pride myself in finding sneakers I once loved in my younger years, and getting kinky with less heralded silhouettes like some Bo Jacksons or Air Max 2015s.

I was born in 1983, in the middle of a hip-hop and basketball explosion. My parents, being in their late teens when I was born, dipped me in the latest kicks. I had Shell Toes, Jordan 1s, and Air Force 2s. But then my body, with an emphasis on my feet, started to grow rapidly. My parents couldn’t keep up with rising prices of sneakers and were always afraid I would grow out of them too fast. In turn, they moved to only buy me one to two pairs a year during my grammar school and teenage years. It wasn’t until I was 16 and got a job that I was truly able to cop the sneakers I wanted for myself. Plus, having a ton of friends working at various sneaker chains eased the dent in my pockets.

During this period, my friends and I would scour North New Jersey and Uptown New York City for kicks nobody had. We would hit one of the Harlem stores or a spot that shall forever remain nameless for deals. If you had $300 cash, it was nothing to walk away with three or four pairs of sneakers along with an Akademiks outfit. This was during the late ’90s and early ’00s, when one could walk into a Foot Locker or a neighborhood skate shop and actually be able to get a feel for sneakers before dropping a dime.

But times have changed. The art of sneaker hunting has gone digital, causing mom and pop shops to smarten up and put their deadstock on eBay instead of in the basement of the store. Digger extraordinaire Tommy Rebel of Just For Kicks fame remembers when it all started going to hell in the late ’90s. 

Image via Forgotten NY

“I used to go digging at this spot called Frankel’s and I saw a pair of Air Stabs in the counter and I wanted to buy them for my girl. He didn’t wanna sell them to me because he had them on eBay. I went home and followed the auction, and they sold to someone else for $300. That was the beginning of the end.”

Small pro shops were the lifeblood of the sneaker game for decades. But like neighborhood hardware and electronic stores, they’ve been slowly swallowed up by bigger chains like Best Buy, Foot Locker, Home Depot, and the Internet. 

Sneaker historian Gary Warnett still tries to frequent his favorite boutiques. “I still love that feeling when you’re not buying from some big chain and you’re getting these odd shoes. There’s a strange local selection in every kind of borough in New York. We all think everything is completely marginalized. But there’s this eccentricity that’s still there.”

Sneaker connoisseur Dallas Penn remembers a simpler time as well, but he’s more optimistic about today’s age of sneaker hunting.

“First of all, we’re talking about me loving sneakers for the better part of 30 years,” he said. “If you’re a sneakerhead, you have more choices than you ever had in the history of the planet.”

I can get jiggy with that opinion. Brick and mortars may be scarce, but the web is a vast space filled with almost every sneaker that has ever existed. However, sneaker companies have doubled down on the simple principle of supply and demand, relegating sneakerheads to act like crackheads when new product hits the streets. 

Image via The New Nomads

While thousands of kicks are released yearly, many of them are hard to get. The days of strolling into your neighborhood skate shop on a pleasant Sunday afternoon to cop a week-old Nike SB collab are no more.

The blame can be placed on the resale market, which is fucking the game up. I’ll let God’s favorite DJ/human Air Force 1, DJ Clark Kent, tell it:

“There’s a bunch of sneakers out. Of course, it’s better. Is the shopping game better? Hell no. Back then you weren’t buying them to resell them, you were buying them to stunt.”

Warnett agrees, but he doesn’t hate on resellers, adding, “To me, it’s like selling shit to your friend for a $50 markup. It can get a little too mercenary. It’s joyless. I like to see little stories connected to sneakers. Like finding some shoes on cheap in a shop basement and you had to persuade the owner. It’s such the polar opposite now. ‘I paid $400 for these.’ It’s just a miserable culture.” 

“There is no sneaker hunting anymore and the reason why is because you know what’s coming out." - DJ Clark Kent

What’s also miserable is the raffle system that most stores use to sell hyped sneaker relates.  This never existed in my day and Rebel can relate: “What do you win? My friends are like, ‘No, I entered for a chance to buy sneakers.’ I don’t understand. Fuck you, fuck them, and fuck the company that’s doing this. This is bullshit. If someone wants to spend their money, they should be allowed to spend their money.”

Where did it go wrong? Why are more people hyped over sneakers than ever before? Blame the Internet.

The availability of constant sneaker information is where Clark pinpoints everything going downhill. “Things really went haywire when we got sneaker blogs. If you don’t have information, you’re not going to line up in front of a store. If there’s no information, what are you hyped for?”

The irony of writing this on Sole Collector isn’t lost on me. I give them and Complex Sneakers shit all the time for posting links to restocks. Within five minutes, those Jordans, SBs, or collabs I’ve had my eyes are gone. And if I want to go to a store for a release—forget about it.

“There is no sneaker hunting anymore and the reason why is because you know what’s coming out,” Clark said. “Nothing is new, you knew what’s coming out this year, last year.”

The game has changed forever. Has it been for the better? That depends on what’s important to you. I have weird feet and find myself getting frustrated when I have to send 11.5s back in exchange for 12s. If I were able to hit a shop, my digging experience would be significantly better. I miss the old days, but with everything in life, it’s better to adapt than to complain.