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HOUSTON, TEXAS (Texas Monthly) - On the morning of July 27, Chris Santos climbed out of bed filled with anxiety over which pair of shoes to wear.
This wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary; for Santos, almost every waking moment revolved around athletic footwear. He spent at least an hour a day on websites like Nicekicks (“the most read source for sneaker news, information, history, and release dates”).
He hunted down steals on eBay, read magazines like Sole Collector, and watched YouTube videos posted by connoisseurs who went by names like “Perfect Pair” and “Soley Ghost.”
He meticulously stockpiled his collection of fifty pairs in a closet, stored in their original boxes and organized by edition number. He’d once spent up to $700 on a single pair of Nikes called “ What the LeBron .” Making a shoe statement was a daily preoccupation.
But on this day, Santos’s choice of footwear held particular importance. The 27-year-old wasn’t just going to be showing off for his clients at the Pura Nutrition store, where he was known as the fit, compact personal trainer with a flair for pedal fashion.
On this particular Sunday, Santos, a member of the Laredo Sneakerhead Society, would get together with the club’s three other organizers, pull on their matching T-shirts (names emblazoned on the back), and drive five hours to the NRG Center, in Houston, for the Sneaker Summit, one of the premier footwear events in the country. The shoes Santos wore had to impress the right people.
“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” he said later. He considered the orange LeBron Big Bangs and the black Jordan 11 Space Jams but finally settled on some black-and-Carolina-blue Air Jordan Vs from the 2006 LS series. “They’re OG,”—pristine—he said. “I picked something from a year back that not too many of these young kids are going to have—or even know about.”
He and his buddies arrived 45 minutes early and walked to the end of the VIP line in the NRG Center’s cacophonous hallway, where roughly 1,000 sneakerheads were already waiting. This was Santos’s first time at the summit, and he observed that the number of early arrivals alone was significantly greater than the entire attendance of the shoe-appreciation events he and his friends organized in Laredo. He nodded approvingly at the sneakers other people were wearing.
“Everybody’s seeing what everybody else is rocking,” Santos said. A satisfied smile grew on his face as he looked at his own feet. “I haven’t seen anybody wearing these yet.”
At 3:00 sharp, the doors to the 80,000-square-foot exhibit area opened, and everyone in the line craned his neck to get a peek inside. There, filling the cavernous room, were shoes—hundreds and hundreds of them, stacked on display tables, like bright and glossy rows of candy. Shoes in every color (complementary hues, polka dots, neons); shoes of every material (ostrich skin, faux-lizard, shiny plastic, fur); shoes with all conceivable kinds of accessories (tails, teddy-bear heads, five-inch-long wings unfolding off the heel). Some glowed when you flashed a light on them. Some featured a spongy fabric casing that zipped over the laces, as if the shoe were wearing a warm-up jacket. One mimicked the designs from a Heineken beer label.
The crowd buzzed with excitement as ticket scanners permitted entrance in an orderly manner. The Laredo Sneakerhead Society members followed a group headed for the display booths, while others in line gravitated toward a trading area, where sellers started hoisting their goods high in the air, walking through the crowd in a large circle as they looked for buyers. One group of kids from Houston’s Elgin High School quickly set up a makeshift exhibit of about twenty boxes in the middle of the trading floor, and commenced bartering with a passion that would embarrass a Marrakesh rug salesman. Adam, a high school junior with long eyelashes and short-cropped hair, yanked up his sagging jean shorts and thrust a pair of bulky sneakers out to one of his roaming associates. “Go walk around with these,” he instructed. “If they have something to trade, come back.”
“And not with something stupid,” added Adam’s colleague Sam, a senior.
“Hey-hey!” Adam shouted as a young man walked past. “What size are your Galaxies?” Adam pointed to the foamposite Nikes the teen was wearing, painted with a purple-and-blue night sky scene and embellished with indented swoops, black laces, and glow-in-the-dark soles. Adam had wanted Galaxies for two years. To afford their cost—somewhere between $600 and $1,000—he had been buying other shoes low and selling them high, saving his profits for months. But this particular seller’s Galaxies weren’t the right size. Adam waved him away and squatted to improve his view of the parade of other shoes moving in his direction.
An older buyer, in his thirties, walked up and browsed the Elgin High boys’s cluster of wares, finally holding up a pair of Olympic sevens, a white-and-silver Air Jordan high-top that looked a little like something robots might wear in a sixties-era science fiction movie. “I’ll give you $130,” he said as they slipped out of his hands.
“$150,” Adam shouted, explaining, “You dropped them!”
Sam intervened as a calm voice of reason. “140,” Sam said, modifying the counter-offer. “We got the OG box, yo.”
The man pulled out a stack of bills folded in half. “I got $130 right here,” he said.
The teens shouted in unison: “They’re ice!” After consulting each other in whispers, they repeated together: “$140.”
The man looked amused and continued to hold his money out.
At this point, Sam relented. “You got it, bro,” he said.
As Sam took the money, Adam kept the hustle going with the next customer. “Buy these, bro,” he begged. “I need my Galaxies.”
As the clock ticked, sneakerheads felt their Holy Grail shoes slipping from their grasp. Those Nike Kobe VI All-Star Hollywoods that require 3-D glasses? Keep looking. Those SF X Puma Sharkbaits: You ready to spend a grand?
Near the door, Adam, the kid from Elgin High, was admiring a Galaxy shoe exhibited as part of another collector’s items. “Did you get your Galaxies?” I asked. I considered the yearning he’d had, how hard he’d been working. I wondered how many shoes he’d bought and sold over the previous two years while he pined for those Galaxies.
“Yeah!” he said. “I bought them for $750.” Noticing he wasn’t carrying them, I looked at his feet. But he wasn’t wearing them either. “I already sold them,” he said. He pulled out his iPhone and showed me a photo of himself licking the shoe. Then, satisfied, he pulled out a wad of cash. “I sold them for 1.2 K.”