Sneaker attack: Sacramento shoe collectors are turning a cult for athletic kicks into big business

Forget bitcoin. Local entrepreneurs are betting the next commodity to explode is on your feet.

Kicx Unlimited co-owners Adam Rey Delos Reyes, left, and Johnny Szeto, at their downtown location.

Kicx Unlimited co-owners Adam Rey Delos Reyes, left, and Johnny Szeto, at their downtown location.

Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala

Ashtyn Gibson remembers when she first fell in love.

It was around 1997, and the 31-year-old Sacramento woman was in fifth grade. The object of her affection had an elegant profile, athletic curves and smooth complexion. And cost $170.

“I remember my first pair of expensive shoes,” Gibson told SN&R. “It was a pair of Pearl Nike Air Foamposite Pro. And from there, it was an infatuation. My mom was like ’You’re a lady, you’re going to grow out of that.’ And I was like, ’OK, we’ll see.’”

As much as her mother might have thought otherwise, Gibson’s affections never waned. She stayed a faithful sneakerhead—in good times and bad.

She first started selling extra pairs of athletic shoewear to help pay for medical school, then decided she loved what she was doing to support her education more than the education itself. Four years ago, Gibson dropped out of Clark Atlanta University to open her own sneaker boutique. Then, just days before the grand opening, someone broke into her store and cleaned it out of $100,000 worth of shoes. Her entire stock. Well, almost.

“I was left with one pair,” she recalled.

Her dream on the cusp of unraveling like a weathered lace, Gibson says she received a windfall from a fellow sneakerhead and sometimes trading partner: former Sacramento Kings shooting guard Dahntay Jones.

Jones was playing for the Atlanta Falcons at the time, but getting ready to move to New York. Rather than tote his large collection of mint-condition sneakers with him, Jones offered to sell Gibson every size-14 pair at a discounted rate.

“He had like 165 pairs of the rarest stuff—Yeezys, Galaxy Foamposites, everything brand new,” Gibson said.

Gibson bought them all, and was back in business. Now, years later, she’s in California and on her second store—Authentic Sole in Elk Grove.

The hometown venture puts Gibson smack dab in the middle of a cultural uprising in the Sacramento area, where sneaker collectors sell entire collections for thousands of dollars, and bankroll weddings or home purchases with little more than flashy lumps of rubber, foam and canvas sewn in factories a world away.

Like other sneaker aficionados, Duy Nguyen remembers the pair that hooked him. The year was 1999 and basketball shoes were still mostly all about one guy—Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.

“The very first pair of Jordan[s] I got was the Jordan 4 Retro,” Nguyen said. “They came in the silver box, with the Retro card, and it was the playground picture, where he was dunking.”

Thus began a lifelong pursuit for Nguyen, who used to sell candy bars as a teenager to help support his habit. Eventually, he used his sneaker expertise to land a job at Foot Locker. Nearly two decades later, like Gibson before him, Nguyen has taken an obsessive hobby and turned it into a business venture. Along with Tuan Nguyen (no relation), a friend from his Foot Locker days, Nguyen opened 91Kix on December 2 on Elk Grove Boulevard, which sells sneakers on consignment and offers shoe cleaning and restoration on site.

91Kix is now the third sneaker store of note in town. The longest tenured boutique is Kicx Unlimited, which sits a stone’s throw from the Golden 1 Center. Shops like 91Kix, Kicx Unlimited and Authentic Sole rely on the so-called sneaker community—a large network of enthusiasts and collectors that occupy online forums and local Facebook groups like Sneakerheads Of Sacramento, which claims a membership of nearly 10,000.

It’s a cult that breeds young business owners and unites people of all races, genders and backgrounds. At the center of this ecosystem is the reseller, who buys the most desirable shoes and sells them back to consumers at a hefty markup. Resellers are just another stitch in the fabric of the community, and part of the reason the local sneaker market has soared.

When the rarer brands don’t turn up in local chain stores, they generally end up in the hands of individuals like 31-year-old Eugene Shauf, a well-known reseller in the local community and a former Foot Locker employee who estimates he used to make $30,000-$40,000 a year reselling sneakers before he took a full-time job at Tesla.

“It’s crazy how it’s evolved, man,” Shauf said. “I remember you could count the resellers; it was like five, 10 resellers that really resold. Now there’s thousands; everybody is a reseller. You’ve got people’s moms and dads reselling shoes.”

Shauf’s exploits have sent him on frequent trips to Portland to visit Nike’s headquarters. He recently helped spread word that 91Kix acquired more than three dozen pairs of LeBron James’ first signature sneaker, the Nike Air Zoom Generation, a week before they actually hit retailers. Thanks to the network he’s built up over two decades in the sneaker community, the shoes sold out in hours.

But resellers also come between the shoes and eager consumers. That middleman interference, along with limited editions of the most prestigious sneakers, create a seemingly unfixable problem—not enough shoes and too much inflation.

To help get the shoes back into the hands of actual customers, stores like Foot Locker and Champs Sports unveiled raffle systems nationwide in 2012, and have fine-tuned the systems over the years. Now, those stores, and brands like Nike and Adidas, host smartphone apps through which raffles are held for each high-end release.

“I personally like the raffles,” said Kicx Unlimited co-owner Johnny Szeto. “It’s not perfect, but it helps organize releases, so at least you know the stores and brands are trying. I do know a lot of people that win at the mall, so at least I know it’s not completely rigged. If I was a parent, I’d rather have raffles than have my kid wait outside all night for a pair of Jordans.”

The reasons have more to do with safety than convenience.

In 2013, an ABC News report estimated 1,200 people die over sneakers each year, a stat utilized, controversially so, in a recent GQ documentary on sneaker culture titled Sneakerheadz. More recently, a Washington, D.C., teenager was killed days before Christmas, allegedly over a pair of the shiny, red “Win Like 96” Jordan 11s. And in November, a 14-year-old boy survived after being shot twice outside his Arden-area home trying to sell a pair of shoes, according to a report from CBS 13.

Arden Fair mall security declined to comment on the raffle system, or safety issues in the past, but the mall’s stores agree the online raffles are better than the alternative.

“It’s much safer than the first-come, first-served system from before with the long line outside,” said Champs Sports assistant manager Corina Tacardon. “Yes, we still get a long line in the store after the raffle, and it’s just as much work for us, but it’s safer. It’s better than risking getting shot over your shoes.”

Much of the violence surrounding high-end sneakers happens at the raucous releases where consumers wait overnight for the chance to purchase the shoes. The raffle systems are meant to rectify that situation. But police also encourage buyers and sellers to meet in public locations like police stations to complete their online deals.

“We have a safe-exchange space, an area in front [of the] Franklin and Fruitridge police station that is well-lit and video recorded 24-7,” said Detective Edward MacCaulay, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department.

Boutiques like 91Kix and Kicx Unlimited loan their own spaces for meet-ups, secondary market sales and trades.

“We want to make it like a community,” Szeto said. “We want people to do deals at Kicx, because we have a security system and we have cameras. We want people to be safe.”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in December, 91Kix is quiet, save for a Street Fighter II arcade machine that has been redecorated with the famous gray-and-black “cement” print from the Jordan 3, and the store’s black, white and green logo. The shop has been open just a week, and Nguyen is excited about its prospects. So much so, he’s a few weeks away from quitting his day job with the state to dedicate his life to sneakers full time.

Though Nguyen has turned the business of sneakers into his livelihood, his passion isn’t all about profits. Sneakers are more than just leather and lace wrapped around his feet, he says. For him, the shoes have an aspirational quality.

“When you see a shoe that you want so bad on a computer screen, and then eventually fast forward and get it in your hands and actually wear it and enjoy it, that’s part of the science of achievement,” Nguyen contended. “You can do that with your life. Everything in life.”

Including buying a home.

Victor Topete began collecting shoes as a high schooler in the 1980s. Then, when he was old enough to think about having kids, he says he started collecting for two.

“I got married in 1998 and I got this idea in my head that I wanted my eventual sons to become a part of that culture as well,” Topete explained. “So I would buy doubles of every single pair that I bought.”

A few years after his divorce, and after his sons didn’t take to the same footwear as him, the 43-year-old Sacramento native decided to cash in his collection to help make a down payment on a house. Topete took a trip down to Kicx; 15 minutes and 47 pairs later, he was about $10,000 richer.

Topete got the home and says he has no regrets about liquidating his life’s work. But the lifelong sneakerhead in him will always question his priorities.

“It was definitely a cash thing, because I still have that passion for sneakers,” Topete said. Then, with a hint of wistfulness, he added, “There’s a few pairs that I wish I would have kept.”