By BRYSON GORDON, The News & Advance
LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Trying to find the Rhontae Harris sneaker store on one of the busiest stretches of Wards Road in Lynchburg can be a bit of a challenge.
In fact, Harris found it difficult to find when he was looking for the perfect place to start his business: a high-end sneaker boutique.
Harris, who wasn’t living in Lynchburg at the time, looked around for a while before settling in town to open the shop.
“I was living in Keysville at the time…” Harris said. “I took a whole day off and called a couple of real estate agents but couldn’t find anything.”
Harris said he left the River Ridge Mall in Lynchburg when, just before Cookout, he came across a small mall at 2611 Wards Road while driving south on Wards Road.
“I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign and called the owner and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to make a big move.'”
Harris’ big move was the opening of sneaker boutique Sneak Diss in April 2021. The store buys, sells and trades high-end sneakers such as Air Jordans, Nikes, Adidas and other major footwear brands.
The concept may sound strange to many not involved in what Harris calls “sneaker culture.”
Harris, who said he has about 160 pairs of sneakers in his personal shoe collection at home, compared the sneaker market to the stock market.
“I’m basically trying to get them to understand that this is a resale store,” he said. “Actually, it’s like stocks. One month the shoe might be high and hot, come back a few months later and they might be a bit run down.”
Sneak Diss is inspired by successful sneaker boutiques like the Flight Club in New York City. Flight Club recently merged with parent company GOAT, which operates a similar business but has no physical store and caters to an online audience.
According to Sportico, a website that analyzes finance in esports, GOAT Group, the holding company for both, was recently valued at $3.7 billion at the end of 2021.
Harris also mentioned smaller companies like North Carolina’s Request Sneaker Boutique, which has branches in multiple cities, and Kicks Booming in Richmond, both of which have charted successful roadmaps for people like Harris looking to open their own sneaker boutiques.
The stores usually open with a mix of new and used shoes, allowing customers to trade their shoes in for store credit or just exchange for another shoe.
In order for a shoe to be brought into the store, it has to be in top condition and show minimal signs of wear – which Harris says is not uncommon since many people wear their prized shoes too little to beat them up.
The boutiques also scout for upcoming shoe releases, often on Saturday mornings, and buy the shoes to resell in their own stores when the sneaker hype fuels demand.
A recent example of a high resale value shoe is the Air Jordan 11 in the Cool Gray colorway, which retailed for $225 in December. On the resale market, the shoe costs between $350 and $400.
Shoe colorway refers to the colors used on the shoe. The cool gray colorway of the Air Jordan 11 sports the shoe in a light gray upper with white hints on the midsole. Other notable color combinations for Air Jordans include “Bred,” which refers to black and red Air Jordans from Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bull days. Another example is the ‘UNC’ colourway, which pays homage to Jordan’s time at the University of North Carolina and wraps the shoes in baby blue and white.
Just like other companies, the demand for the shoe determines the price, but the hype around the shoe also plays a role. Shoes get more hype when they’re endorsed by a celebrity, like Kanye West’s Yeezy sneaker line with Adidas, or are original colorways of the shoe, like the “Cool Gray” colorway of the Air Jordan 11.
There are other ways shoes get even more hyped, such as the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, which drove up the resale price of all of his signature sneakers sold by Nike.
The shoes are also often available in extremely limited quantities, leading to more people wanting to get their hands on them, sometimes pushing the resale value of the shoe into the four figures.
Harris has always had a love of shoes, but it wasn’t until recently that he imagined opening the shop.
“Most people think it’s because of (Michael) Jordan,” Harris said, “but my love for shoes comes from Magic Johnson. He was my favorite player so I had to wear these purple and yellow Converses to be like him.
“I carried newspapers and mowed grass all summer so I had enough pairs to look cool by the time school started.”
Harris said when he decided to open a store in central Virginia, Lynchburg immediately jumped off the map because of its younger population thanks to the many colleges in the area.
“The expensive shoes aren’t going to do well here,” he said, “I’ll be honest with you… a lot of these kids are in college or some are still in high school. It’s hard for them to get the high dollar shoe.”
Harris said he doesn’t actually sell many “grails,” so-called because of their rarity. Grails are often the most expensive or coolest shoe in someone’s collection.
Selling mid-range shoes works in Lynchburg because shoppers can look cool without breaking the bank, he said. Despite this, he gets funny looks from parents or grandparents who come into the store with a younger person to buy new shoes.
Harris said he doesn’t haggle over prices, but he does love offering someone a coin toss over the shoe.
“If you want a shoe for $250 and I want to sell it for more, we flip a coin. Heads and tails, if you win I’ll pay your price, but we don’t lose much here,” he said.
Although Harris has only been in business for a year, he is already considering expansion and is even looking at other cities near Central Virginia, such as Charlottesville.
When he decided to open the store, he built it up with around 600 pairs of sneakers.
“Now it’s difficult to fill every spot on those shelves,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling when you work in the community and people recognize our logo on a t-shirt, or when you see a kid walk into the store and say they’ve seen you on social media or something has,” Harris said.
“As a Black business owner and small business owner, I am very proud of that. There are a lot of people in the same boat as me who have inspired me to keep doing it, but I left a lot behind and I’m not nervous at all.”
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