It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the traffic in Mercer Market is leisurely but consistent. A large chunk of the visitors to the lower level of the historic Mercer Warehouse, a retail space for local entrepreneurs, are not only wearing shoes but carrying them as well, and sometimes multiple pairs.
They’re dropping off their shoes — mostly sneakers, but also leather dress shoes and boots of various styles — to The Shoe Shine Shack, which Shane Breau has been operating out of the space since May of 2018.
Breau began cleaning sneakers in his Oliver apartment almost three years ago after discovering Edmonton’s thriving sneaker community, which has entered the mainstream thanks to the proliferation of social media and celebrity personalities like rapper-turned-sneaker designer Kanye West and Virgil Abloh, whose deconstructed take on a number of iconic Nike models often fetch double, triple and, sometimes, even quadruple their original retail prices on the sneaker resale market. The business of sneaker resales is estimated to become a $6 billion market by 2025.
In other words, sneakers aren’t just having a moment — they’re here to stay.
And it didn’t take long for Breau to realize someone needs to ensure all these sneakers stay fresh. At first, The Shoe Shine Shack only cleaned sneakers and polished dress shoes, all without running water. It’s since moved into cleaning apparel such as hats and bags.
“For the first year, I would bring water in buckets from the bathroom to clean shoes,” Breau laughs. “But over those 12 months we steadily increased our sales to the point we had to expand. We renovated the store, doubled our space and finally installed running water. What began as a one-man operation now consists of three people.”
He credits Instagram, where before-and-after photos of sneakers The Shoe Shine Shack has restored to near-new condition are popular for helping grow the business.
His interest in sneakers began as a child.
“I had an obsession with back-to-school shoes,” he says. “I always had a lot of sneakers, and I always kept them in pristine condition. Even before I started The Shoe Shine Shack, I was cleaning sneakers — they were just my own. I think sneakers are a form of art, and art needs to be maintained so that it lasts.”
Jerry MacLachlan agrees with that sentiment.
“They’re wearable art,” MacLachlan, who owns the Belmont Sobeys, says. “A good sneaker is timeless.”
His sneaker journey started in 1987 when he came across an ad for the Nike Air Max 1 in an issue of Sports Illustrated.
“I saw the Air unit in the sole of the shoe and was blown away,” he says. “I like technology. I used to take apart radios as a kid and was always interested in how things worked. Seeing the cushioning technology in a sneaker exposed like it was in the Air Max 1 really caught my eye.” Soon after, he discovered the Air Jordan sneakers designed by Nike for basketball legend Michael Jordan — specifically, the Air Jordan 5 — and was hooked for life.
In his basement, MacLachlan, 42, has a display wall that includes the Jordans 1 through 23 in their original colourways (to date, there have been 34 Jordan models released, and the brand has shown no signs of slowing down even though the NBA icon has been retired for 17 years). MacLachlan wore the pair of Jordan 1s on his daughter’s first birthday and plans on continuing the tradition until she’s 23.
His collection is currently just shy of 100 pairs; at its peak, it contained around 250.
In 2016, MacLachlan’s passion ended up spurring an impromptu trip with a friend to Beaverton, Oregon, home of Nike’s headquarters, where after a lot of networking and a little luck he ended up meeting superstar sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, responsible for some of the most iconic sneaker models of all time, from the aforementioned Air Max 1 to the Nike MAG, the futuristic self-lacing sneaker Marty McFly wore in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II.
While it was the convergence of design and technology that initially appealed to MacLachlan, it was the comfort factor that drew Camille Anwuli, who currently owns around 35 pairs, to sneakers.
“Growing up, I was heavily involved with sports,” she says. “And when you’re an athlete, comfort is key. Sneakers are probably the most comfortable style of footwear, so the seeds of my sneaker addiction were planted then for me.”
The pair that turned Anwuli, who works for a consulting firm and as a stylist and content creator, into a more serious enthusiast, was a 2012 rerelease (or “retro,” in sneaker parlance) of the Nike Jordan 4 in the “Fire Red” colourway, one of the four original colourways in which the sneaker was released when it debuted in 1989.
“My boyfriend at the time was a sneakerhead and would always be reading about sneakers online,” she explains. “One day he was scrolling through upcoming releases, and one caught my eye. It was the Fire Reds. He eventually got me a pair for my birthday, for which he had to wait in line at Foot Locker. After that, I learned more about the culture around sneakers. Since then, my interest in sneakers has only grown.
“I’ve never been a girl that wears heels and dresses,” she continues. “A girl can rock baggy clothes with a pair of sneakers and still have fashion sense.”
Anwuli references female designers like Vashtie Kola, who in 2010 became the first woman to design a Jordan sneaker, and Aleali May, who in 2017 became the first woman to design a Jordan sneaker that was released in both men’s and women’s sizing, as proof that women are finally being taken seriously in sneaker culture. It has historically has treated women as an afterthought, even though they’ve been wearing sneakers just as long as men have.
“Sneakers are for everyone, and that’s what makes them so great.”
This article appears in the February 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.