Medcalf: Inside the world of Minnesota sneakerheads

As I browsed the shoe selection in Twin Cities Sneakers at Rosedale Mall last week, I was stunned to see the colorful display of limited-edition gems on the back wall of the store. There are shoes in this store that I have never seen or worn. I didn’t even know many of them existed.

“They’re basically collectibles,” said Shekiala McMillan-Washington, who opened the store last year with her husband, Demarcus Washington. “The majority of our customers are those who are truly sneakerheads, where they don’t mind paying $300, $400 for shoes.”

Twin Cities Sneakers is just one of many sneaker stores that have sprung up in the Twin Cities in recent years. These are the places to go when looking for hard-to-find shoes.

Last week they had a pair of Nike Air Max 1s that I could have purchased had they been available in my size. There was also a pair of slick Jordan 1s, but they had sold out the Kanye West-inspired Yeezy slides that Gen Z loves.

“Man, that’s where they got the heat,” a young man said as he walked into the store with a few friends.

My journey into the sneakerhead craze is new. It started with a review from a friend of mine. About six months ago, I told him about my new ESPN gig that would take me across the country with TV assignments. My assortment of costumes, we both agreed, would be enough. But he had other worries.

“Your shoe game needs work,” he told me.

What? Me?

I thought my collection was strong. But he had recently become a real “sneakerhead”. It is the term for a community of people who have transformed shoes into a culture that has made shoes a symbol of self-expression. Trendy shoes have always been a trendy accessory, especially in hip-hop culture. In 1986, Run-DMC released “My Adidas” and the brand’s popularity exploded. And Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” in 2002 had a bankable impact on Nike’s sales. But over the past 20 years, the internet and a rabid resale market have turned shoes that normally cost under $200 into luxury items that people will spend thousands of dollars to own.

“One of the things that we struggle with are the communication lines of what a sneakerhead is,” said Chad Jones, co-founder of Another Lane, an online shoe resale marketplace. “It’s become an elitist thing because suburbs and corporations have taken over. It’s never what it used to be. It’s about inclusivity and respect for your individual tastes.”

I used to work with Jones’ wife, Adena, at ESPN. Together they turned their love for shoes into a business. A conversation with Jones is a conversation with a shoe scientist and historian. The New York native told me he’s owned at least 5,000 pairs of shoes in his lifetime.

“On the low end,” he said.

Jones has always loved shoes. In my childhood, I never developed this love for them. I grew up in a family of nine – four sisters, two brothers, my parents and me – with a middle-class lifestyle.

I remember going shopping with my dad and picking up a pair of Jordans that cost $150 (in the 1990s). I think he told me these were shoes for working people. At 10 years old, I was not yet ready to fill out applications.

But my boyfriend’s recent nudge sent me into a world I never embraced when I was younger. First I bought a pair of Jordan 11s. Then a special edition Adidas Dame 7 (Damian Lillard) “Day of the Dead” shoes. A pair of yellow Adidas Superstars followed.

As I traveled across the country, people started noticing me and asking me about my shoes. And while I’m not completely immersed in sneakerhead culture, I can relate to people going out of their way to find those rare shoes. I feel energetic and trendy in my kicks.

But I’m not ready to call myself a sneakerhead.

“If you like it and you like sneakers, it doesn’t matter if it’s Stan Smiths [Adidas] or the most exclusive pair of Jordans on the market,” said Chad Jones. “Do you like these sneakers? Do you like these sneakers? Do you feel good when you wear them? You are a sneakerhead.”

During a game in East Lansing, Michigan in January, someone tapped me on the shoulder as I sat courtside during a college basketball game. He didn’t say a word. He just pointed at my shoes. I nodded and he nodded too.

Of course, it’s just a pair of shoes. And I don’t know, even with Jones’s blessing, if I’m a true member of sneakerhead culture, but I do know this: it feels good to be recognized for my shoes. And that’s the point.

Wearing what you love and being appreciated for it, I think, is the definition of individuality.

“Everybody’s in now,” McMillan-Washington said. “You’ll see all the cultures, no matter who it is, they come here like, ‘Oh, I need these shoes.'”

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.

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