Finding success in old shoes

Darien Gans (left), holding a Converse Weapon, and Byron Gans, with a 1987 Ellesse Maurice Cheeks model, run the Shoe Kings store on Mount Ephraim Avenue.
Darien Gans (left), holding a Converse Weapon, and Byron Gans, with a 1987 Ellesse Maurice Cheeks model, run the Shoe Kings store on Mount Ephraim Avenue. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2012

Growing up in Camden in the 1980s, brothers Byron and Darien Gans were all about basketball. Not only was it the era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but Camden High School was a basketball powerhouse, creating NCAA champions and NBA players.

The Gans brothers played street ball after school and, just like the players they admired, wore the latest trending sneakers - whether high-top or low, white or colorful, leather or canvas. Often Byron would paint his sneakers to match his outfit.

"It was a very experimental time," Byron, a 1990 Camden High School graduate, said of his middle and high school years.

In the years that followed, the brothers accumulated hundreds of pairs of sneakers and, in turn, the knowledge for their future niche business.

"People started calling us 'the shoe kings,'" Byron, 41, recalled.

And so, their business was named.

Their store opened on Mount Ephraim Avenue in 2007 and is now a vintage sneaker haven, showcasing the first Air Jordans, the Weapon, and other big-name shoes from back in the day. The walls are lined with NBA posters from the '70s, '80s and '90s, and a large display case has shoes worn and signed by Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and other NBA stars.

But more than a vintage shoe collection, say those who know the brothers, the shop is a place where friends come to chat about city politics and where neighborhood children travel back in time, possibly inspiring them.

"Kids come in and say, 'Oh, I just want to look around,'" said Darien Gans, a 1991 Camden High graduate. "We never turn them away."

Born in West Philadelphia and raised in Camden by their grandmother and mother, the Gans brothers agree that what kept them out of crime was their hobbies: playing basketball at the Salvation Army courts in Parkside or break-dancing with friends, and, of course, collecting sneakers.

"You don't see that anymore," said Darien, 39. "We always had an outlet. Doing this [collecting sneakers] always helped us stay focused."

Now the men, both of whom live in the Fairview section, want to give back to the city by expanding their business and putting together a youth basketball program.

"There's not too much inspiration out there. . . . We want to create that inspiration or that momentum that maybe will help turn around a kid," Darien said.

In addition to Shoe Kings, Darien works as a city firefighter. A member of Engine 11, he works out of the Cramer Hill firehouse two days a week.

Byron, a former barber, works in the store six days a week.

Though there isn't hard data, anecdotally not many Camden High graduates open up businesses in the city that raised them, say some alumni.

"Those who are business-minded have moved to another area or after college stayed in their college town," said Darryl Johnson, a 1978 Camden High graduate and alumni group member who runs a graphic design business out of his Camden home.

The first couple of years were tough in the city, but word of mouth has helped the Gans brothers.

Last year, Shoe Kings sold between 500 and 1,000 pairs of sneakers, both retail and collector's items. Retail sneakers sell for about $50 a pair and the collection items can range from $100 to $600 or more, "depending on the rarity of shoe," Darien said.

The brothers hope that once their website is updated, international business will take off. A year ago Shoe Kings sold a pair of original 1987 Maurice Cheeks-endorsed Ellesse tennis shoes for $1,000 to a customer in Germany.

In addition to the hundreds of collectible shoes they have on display and in the back room (soon to be opened for the "high-rollers," they say), the shoe kings also keep a retail line of the latest everyday sneakers, such as Nikes and Adidas, for walk-in customers.

"We get a lot of foot traffic of people saying, 'I was walking by and just had to come in,'" Darien said.

The store, nestled between two vacant storefronts, still holds a lot of the original wood paneling of what the Ganses say was a candy shop in the 1950s.

Once a major commercial corridor in Camden, Mount Ephraim Avenue is now mostly lined with corner stores, hair and nail salons, and barber shops.

Keeping with the "kings" theme, red velvet, crowns, and knights adorn the store in abundance. Darien, a flea market and antique shop aficionado, scavenges memorabilia that fits the Shoe Kings business model.

Aside from the icons from the late-20th-century NBA teams, the Shoe Kings have paid tribute to the early 1980s Camden High School basketball teams that featured Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, and Kevin Walls, all of whom played on the 1986 NCAA champion University of Louisville basketball team.

Walls, now 47, is a frequent visitor to the Mount Ephraim Avenue basketball mecca.

"They always surprise me. It seems like every time I go in they have something new to show," said Walls, a state corrections officer who still lives in Camden. He has helped the Gans brothers get in touch with other famous Camden High basketball players.

To connect with NBA greats, the Gans brothers travel to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., at least once a year, armed with sneakers, posters or other memorabilia that they want autographed by particular players.

"They can't believe we have their shoes," Darien said of players' reactions when presented old game shoes. Gans usually tosses in a line or brochure on their businesses. Some think it's a cool idea; others don't have much of a response.

Pictures of some of those meet-and-greets hang behind the store counter. Even Pat Riley and other coaches have made the Gans' wall of fame.

Friends say, though, that the old-school sneakers display, many of which are part of Darien's personal autographed collection, is the most impressive part of the store.

"It's a lot of sneakers we wore as children but children today have never seen," Walls said.

The autographed player shoes from earlier decades are not necessarily for sale but that could be negotiated, Darien said with a laugh.

"We have shoes from that time that we can bring out," which are for sale, Darien said. He still gets excited about showing off certain shoes he keeps in the back like the Dr. J Converse sneakers or the original 1984 Gucci tennis shoes.

Neighborhood children who come in to the store often get a basketball history lesson as the brothers start explaining their collection.

And that is something Darien and Byron can use to make a difference, said Asanti Wilson, a friend of the brothers and fellow firefighter with Darien.

A lot of Camden youth "don't have a strong support at home," said Wilson, 30. "When they come in, [the Gans brothers] try to give them that support. Little things like that go a long way."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, or cvargas@phillynews.com or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow/

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|