As I browsed the selection of shoes in Twin Cities Sneakers at Rosedale Mall last week, I was stunned to see the colorful display of limited edition gems on the store's back wall. There are shoes in that store I had never seen or held. I didn't even know many of them existed.
"They're collector's items, basically," said Shekiala McMillan-Washington, who opened the store last year with her husband, Demarcus Washington. "The majority of our customers are the ones that are really sneakerheads, where they don't mind paying $300, $400 for shoes."
Twin Cities Sneakers is just one of many sneakerhead shops that have emerged in the Twin Cities in recent years. These are the places to go when you're looking for shoes that are difficult to find.
Last week, they had a pair of Nike Air Max 1s I might have purchased if they had been available in my size. There was a pair of slick Jordan 1s too, but they'd sold out of the Kanye West-inspired Yeezy slides that Gen Z loves.
"Man, this is 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 began with a critique from a buddy of mine. About six months ago, I told him about my new ESPN gig that would take me around the country with TV assignments. My assortment of suits, we both agreed, would be sufficient. But he had other concerns.
"Your shoe game needs work," he told me.
I thought my collection was solid. But he had recently become a real "sneakerhead."That's the term for a community of folks who've turned shoes into a culture that's made footwear a symbol of self-expression. Trendy footwear has always been a fashionable accessory, especially within hip-hop culture. In 1986, Run-D.M.C. 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 last 20 years, the internet and a rabid resale market have turned shoes that might normally cost less than $200 into luxury items that people will spend thousands of dollars to own.
"One of the things we're having the problem with is the communication lines of what a sneakerhead is," said Chad Jones, co-founder of Another Lane, an online shoe resale market. "It turned into this elitist thing because the suburbs and corporate companies got ahold of it. That's never what it was. This is about inclusivity and being respected for your individual tastes."
I used to work with Jones' wife, Adena, at ESPN. Together, they've turned their love for shoes into a business. A conversation with Jones is a conversation with a shoe scientist and historian. The New York City native told me he's owned at least 5,000 pairs of shoes in his life.
"On the low end," he said.
Jones had always loved shoes. In my childhood, I never developed that love for them. I grew up in a family of nine — four sisters, two brothers, my parents and I — with a middle class lifestyle.
I remember shopping with my father and grabbing a pair of Jordans with a $150 (in the 1990s) price tag. I believe he told me those were shoes for people with jobs. At 10 years old, I was not yet ready to fill out applications.
But my buddy's recent nudging did send me into a world I had never embraced when I was younger. I first bought a pair of Jordan 11s. Then, a special edition of the Adidas Dame 7 (Damian Lillard) "Day of the Dead" shoes. A pair of yellow Adidas Superstars followed.
As I traveled around the country, people began to notice and ask me about my shoes. And even though I'm not fully immersed in the sneakerhead culture, I can understand the people who go all out to find these rare shoes. I feel energized and trendy in my kicks.
But I'm not ready to call myself a sneakerhead.
"If you're into it and you're into sneakers, it doesn't matter if it's Stan Smiths [Adidas] or the most exclusive pair of Jordans on the market," Chad Jones said. "You like those sneakers? You into those sneakers? You feel good when you've got them on? You're a sneakerhead."
During one game in East Lansing, Mich., in January, someone tapped me on the shoulder while I was sitting courtside during a college basketball game. He didn't say a word. He just pointed at my shoes. I nodded my head and he nodded his head, too.
Sure, it's just a pair of shoes. And I don't know, even with Jones' blessing, if I'm a real member of the sneakerhead culture, but I know this: it felt good to be acknowledged for my shoes. And that's the point.
To wear what you like and be appreciated for that, I think, is the definition of individuality.
"Everybody is into it now," McMillan-Washington said. "You will see every culture, no matter who it is, they're coming in 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.