NEW YORK—As I walk down 34th Street, I see it: the first teenager in an all-print shirt, buttoned all the way up, and in all-print Nikes. In tow, a plastic bag full of shoeboxes. Closely behind him, a woman who is clearly his mother. This kid is heading to Sneaker Con, New York’s largest shoe convention, and so am I.
The approach to the Javits Center is even more foreboding: more teens, more shoeboxes and more bags that I assume are full of sneakers more expensive than mine. In the pack that now surrounds me, I count Jordans VI, X, XIII, XIV and two pairs of Nike foamposites. “Everybody’s got heat, bro!” exclaims a boy in Kevin Durant shoes and a matching T-shirt. He wears a backpack the size of his torso, with a neon gym bag dangling around his neck.
Inside, there are tables upon tables of sneakers of every brand, size and colorway—the event immediately lives up to its self-billing as the “Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth.” I’ve been into sneakers since middle school and every pair I’ve ever dreamed about is here. It dawns on me that this is probably the closest I will ever get to being Nick Young. But there are more than just rare sneakers on the floor: people hawk customized NBA socks, shoe cleaning products, throwback jerseys. One sells candles with scents including Bailey’s Irish Cream, Dom Perignon and Hennessey. Another sells only size 12 footwear (“It’s my size,” he explains.) It costs $200 (less than the price of almost any new pair of Jordans) to book a table at the convention. Vendors have driven out from Chicago, South Bend, Detroit and other areas to do business.
Michael Spitz, who owns the Mr. Throwback vintage store in the East Village, began setting up his table at 6:00 a.m, six hours before the convention tipped off. “We like people that appreciate the O.G.,” he says. He offers sneakers and old-school gear including a tempting Michael Jordan Dream Team jersey. Spitz admits there’s a bit of a generational gap at play, fearing many kids are unknowingly wearing fake items. “So we’re promoting a culture, and authentic jerseys.”
The crowd moves at a determined, delicate meander. It occurs to me as I wander that in spite of bumping shoulders with someone every few steps, my feet are probably safer here than anywhere else on the planet: nobody wants their kicks stepped on, and nobody wants to be that guy, either. On a nearby table, Adidas Yeezy Boost 350s sell for $750 and the high-top 750s sell for $3,000. I spot a couple in matching Jordans and Bugs and Lola Bunny Tune Squad jerseys.
In the back of the room, there’s the trading pit, a place, I quickly learn, you don’t want to be if you aren’t buying or selling. This is where individuals do business: all transactions are unregulated and go down with cash. An auctioneer stands atop a podium, holding vintage Jordans and yelling prices into a microphone. Everyone mills around with shoeboxes or stands stagnant lording over their wares, necks straining to switch between what’s on-foot and in-hand. Young kids scream out sizes tailed by parents carrying the goods. Sometime later in the day, a brawl will break out and find its way online. This is the Wild West, and as a sweat breaks down the back of my shirt, it occurs to me I am trapped.
I take refuge in the back corner of the pit with two 17-year olds who introduce themselves as Jacob and Justin, here for their first and fourth times. They’re selling a modest array of shoes and several Supreme pieces. Justin says this is the worst event he’s ever been to, aghast at the density of the crowd. An aspiring designer who interns at a prominent New York streetwear store, he’s made just a couple of sales today. He estimates the most profit he’s ever made in one day at $300-400, but insists he buys sneakers to wear. “I’m not a prick.”
After witnessing another teenager whip out $190 from an envelope tucked into the crotch of his pants—he was buying “Georgetown” Jordan XI’s—I push my way out of the pit. After shelling out four bucks for a bottle of water, I notice a girl selling rice krispies, water and Gatorade for two dollars apiece out of a shoebox. Back near the entrance, a row of tired parents lean against a barrier. I sit down to chat with a grey-haired man in thick-rimmed glasses and simple Adidas trainers.
“It’s too easy to be a grumpy, middle-aged parent,” 55-year-old Mark Cooper tells me. He and his teenage sons left at the crack of dawn from upstate Catskill, N.Y. “I had to see what this culture is all about.” Cooper grew up in South West England and says he’s been self-employed his entire life, so he appreciates the entrepreneurial lessons his boys are learning here—they’re negotiating back down in the pit. “You gotta learn to hustle,” he says. “I just wish there were more chairs.”
After another lengthy, half-hearted lap around the space, I realize three hours have passed. A guy with a spiked leather backpack on a Phunkee Duck rolls across my path in pursuit of someone else’s pair of shoes. I follow a pre-teen in a Tracy McGrady Magic jersey out of the building, trying not to step on anybody's kicks.