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I got into sneakers as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, New York. I was raised by a single mom and we didn’t have a lot of money. When I was 11, I started working as a delivery boy for a delicatessen. I knew my mom couldn’t buy me sneakers, so I had to figure out how to get them myself. I only made $80 a week but it was enough for a pair of Reebok Pumps. In 1993, when I was 14, I got my first Nike Air Jordans, and it was a really big deal for me. They were black suede with different-coloured fabric on the heel. I loved them so much. When I put those shoes on, it gave me a sense of dignity. I washed them with a toothbrush.
Back then the term “sneakerhead” was almost pejorative – it was like people were making fun of you. Now it’s a source of pride. The sneakerhead culture exploded in about 2006. That’s when shoe companies began doing limited-edition runs. All of a sudden you started seeing retro Air Jordans from 1996. Collaborations between shoe companies and artists have become a big deal too, like the Louis Vuitton Dons designed by Kanye West. In the past three years, the sneaker market has been on steroids. Wherever I go, people pull me aside and say, “Hey, I’m a sneakerhead.”
By my late twenties I had built up a good collection of shoes. In 2008, I lost my job and I thought, “Do I just get another job, or do I do something I love?” I decided to start selling and trading my shoes. I sold them on MySpace. I sold them on 42nd Street. Within a week, I’d sold 11 pairs and made $7,000. Slowly, I started finding more collectors like me. We knew that trading shoes on the streets of New York wasn’t safe – we could get robbed – so I started inviting people to my house to trade in my backyard. The third time I did that, about 100 people showed up.
My cousin said to me, “Joe, you should take this public.” So I did. I sold half of my collection of shoes and, in 2012, started SoleXChange for fellow sneakerheads to buy, sell and barter for rare, limited-edition shoes. Now we hold events in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami and Long Island. I’ve seen kids walk out with 25 pairs. A vendor in NYC once sold $19,000 worth of vintage sneakers in five hours.
At our first event we had 500 attendees. Word spread, and in 2013 I had a “holy cow” moment. It was in Manhattan and I’d rented a small gymnasium. I was expecting 600 people but 2,000 showed up. The police thought there was a protest. That’s when I knew I was on to something. We moved our New York event to the Hotel Pennsylvania, which holds 2,000 people, but we’ve already outgrown it – this year I had to turn away 500 kids.
I think of SoleXChange as the “stock market of sneakers”. You don’t have to get beat up on the streets to trade and sell sneakers. We’ve got 100 vendors with every shoe you could ever want. We also offer a free “legit check” service – fake shoes can be a real problem – that authenticates them. Most attendees are kids, with an average age of 16. They’re knowledgeable, hardcore collectors who know the street value of the shoes and know how to barter. The most coveted sneakers are Nike Air Jordans, particularly the Air Yeezy line.
A few people come just to show off their collections. They’ll set up a table with a “Do Not Touch” sign.
What drives a lot of collectors are the stories behind the shoes. A kid at our last New York show turned down $98,000 for his pair of Air Yeezy 2 “Red October” shoes that were designed by Kanye West and signed by the artist on stage at a concert. When I asked the kid about it, he said, “Joe, these shoes mean a lot more to me than $98,000. I’m going to keep them for ever.”
Photograph by Josephine Dvorken