Roth converses easily with his young customers in a patois of street argot and shoe slang. Some 1,000 connoisseurs of athletic shoes come into the store every day, but he still seems to know most of the kids, if not by name, then at least according to aesthetic preference. "Very nice," Roth says, holding up a pair of top-of-the-line basketball shoes. Rockean Sanders, the 16-year-old who plans to buy the black shoes, leans over toward Roth to admire their lines and contours. Rockean has spent more than an hour analyzing "the wall" before choosing his new shoes, and the wall is monopolized by Nikes.
The racks near the front of the store display dozens of examples of Nike apparel, and a large display case offers posters of Barkley, Bo, Deion and the other gigantic Nike images that make so many shoe stores look like miniature halls of fame. Nike's visual and economic dominance of the Essex House of Fashion is largely a testament to the company's marketing prowess but also to the fact that Roth is yet another Nike guy. In many ways his loyalty is as important to the company as is that of all but a few of the athletes on the payroll.
"I get insomnia at night, so I get up and call Nike, just to talk about a shoe I need or to ask a question," Roth says, ringing up yet another sale. "Somebody who knows what's what is on call for me 24 hours a day. Nike sales reps have these computers that can show me a whole line of shoes on the screen. A rep can spin a computer image of the shoes around, change them into all the colors they'll come in. He can even show me the commercials that will support the shoes on TV. I can call Nike up on a Wednesday and tell them I need fill-ins of a hot model, and by the weekend they'll come in. No other company can do that. Nike's been good to me, so I push their shoes. It's as simple as that."
Though many of Nike's 12,000 retail accounts fear the spread of the opulent Nike Towns that the company says are meant to be brand-promoting, 3-D commercials—if Nike makes $12 on a $100 shoe sold to stores for $50, then it's not lost on retailers that in a wholly owned Nike Town the company makes $62 on the same shoe—a Spoiling Goods Dealer survey of 500 retailers shows that Nike remains their favorite brand. But none of the high-tech, high-speed corporate support would mean a thing unless kids spent more time in front of Nike's section of the collective wall than any other. Americans under the age of 25 account for more than half of Nike's sales and for more than 75% of the basketball-shoe market. Research indicates that six of 10 sales are made because of something that happens between the eye, the will and a shoe—right there at the wall.
"I go to Chicago, New York, Paris, Tokyo and Minneapolis," says Nike's chief protector of corporate look and visual images, Gordon Thompson. "I go to gyms and playgrounds and see how the kids customize the strapping with our Velcro fasteners. We made a lot of the shoelaces longer because of lacing styles favored by the kids. All the kids leave the tags on certain shoes, like the Air Raid, so we've made the tags look nicer."
When dozens of newspaper articles set the stage for a 1990 report in SI about urban youths killing one another to get at Air Jordans and other coveted shoes, public outrage focused on a shoe industry that had spawned such a surfeit of unrequited desire that people were willing to commit murder over something as meaningless as a pair of sneakers. An acquisitive culture that had bypassed the larger moral implications of stealing and killing over objects as apparently essential as cars was evidently enraged because of the absurdity of the motives involved.
These reports of violence, as well as the abortive Operation PUSH boycott, have left Nike defensive about accusations that it targets poor, urban black kids for marketing initiatives. "We don't target a market to a demographic," says p.r. director Dolan. "But we do sell to psychographic segments—such as people who love only basketball. We sell to passions and states of mind, not by age, address or ethnicity."
Recent target-marketing campaigns launched by some of Nike's competitors (notably British Knights' campaign for its Predator basketball shoe: "Wear the Predator, or be the prey") are far more aggressive than anything Nike has done. But as long as the possibility of standing in Barkley's or Jordan's shoes captivates the imagination of Americans for whom $130 is a significant sum, questions of social responsibility will be part of Nike's weekly agenda. "I don't get it," says Mourning. "I grew up seeing kids steal all sorts of things. Is Nike supposed to make unimpressive shoes because some people can't afford the best products?"
That the shoes are magical items to one segment of the economy in the way Apple PowerBooks are to another may offer an insight into the social and economic order of the moment. But those closest to the urban scene rarely contend that the problem is the shoes. "What people who live in other places don't understand is that there's a part of America where a Big Mac is a celebration," says Roth as he sends one kid after another away from his counter wearing a giddy grin.
All afternoon kids have streamed through his store, surrounding certain new shoes and commenting on them with curatorial care and insight. "Most of the people in this store, their lives are s——, their homes in the projects are s——, and it's not like they don't know it," says Roth. "There's no drop-in center around here anymore, and no place to go that they can think of as their own. So they come to my store. They buy these shoes just like other kinds of Americans buy fancy cars and new suits. It's all about trying to find some status in the world."