Trying to find Rhontae Harris’ sneaker store on one of the busiest stretches of Wards Road in Lynchburg can be a little challenging.
It was even difficult for Harris to find when he was searching for the perfect location to launch his business: a high-end sneaker boutique.
Harris, who wasn’t living in Lynchburg at the time, looked around for a while before settling on the city to launch the shop.
“I was living in Keysville at the time ...” Harris said. “I took a whole day off and called a couple of Realtors with properties but couldn’t find anything.”
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Harris said he was leaving River Ridge Mall in Lynchburg when he stumbled upon a small strip mall at 2611 Wards Road, just before Cookout when heading south on Wards Road.
“I saw the ‘for rent’ sign and called the owner and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a big step.’”
Harris’ big step was opening the Sneak Diss sneaker boutique in April 2021. The store buys, sells and offers trades on high-end sneakers such as Air Jordans, Nikes, Adidas and other big shoe brands.
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The concept might sound strange to many not involved in what Harris calls “sneaker culture.”
Harris, who said he has about 160 pairs of sneakers in his personal shoe collection at home, likened the sneaker market to the stock market.
“I basically try to get them to see that it’s a resell store,” he said. “It’s actually like stocks. One month, the shoe might be up and hot, come back a couple of months later and they might be down some.”
The inspiration behind Sneak Diss comes from successful sneaker boutiques such as Flight Club in New York City. Flight Club recently merged with parent company GOAT, which runs a similar business but without a physical store, catering to an online audience.
According to Sportico, a website that analyzes finances in sports, the GOAT Group, the holding company for both, was recently valued at $3.7 billion in late 2021.
Harris also mentioned smaller businesses such as the Request Sneaker Boutique out of North Carolina, which has branched into several cities, as well as Kicks Booming in Richmond, both of which have laid out successful road maps for people like Harris wanting to open up their own sneaker boutiques.
The stores typically open up with a mix of new and used shoes and will allow customers to come in and trade their shoes in for store credit, or even just for a clean swap for another shoe.
In order for a shoe to be taken in to the store, it must be in great condition and barely showing any signs of use — which, according to Harris, isn’t that rare, as many people don’t wear their valuable shoes enough to beat them up.
The boutiques also scout out upcoming shoe releases, often on Saturday mornings, and buy the shoes to resell in their own stores if the hype for the sneakers drive up the demand.
One recent example of a shoe that had large resell value is the Air Jordan 11 in the “Cool Grey” colorway, which sold at retail in December for $225. On the resell market, the shoe is going for anywhere from $350 to $400.
The colorway of the shoe refers to the colors used on the shoe. The Cool Grey colorway of the Air Jordan 11 don the shoe in a light grey upper, with white hints on the midsole. Other notable colorways for Air Jordans are “Bred,” which refers to Air Jordans decked out in black and red, from Michael Jordan’s time as a Chicago Bull. Another example is the “UNC” colorway, which pays homage to Jordan’s time at the University of North Carolina and covers the shoes in baby blue and white.
Just like other businesses, the demand for the shoe dictates the price, but the hype around the shoe is a factor as well. Shoes garner more hype if they are endorsed by a celebrity, like Kanye West’s Yeezy line of sneakers with Adidas, or being original colorways of the shoe, like the Air Jordan 11’s “Cool Grey” colorway.
There are other ways shoes become more hyped, such as the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, which drove up the resell price for all of his signature sneakers sold by Nike.
There are often extremely limited quantities of the shoes as well, which makes more people want to get their hands on them, sometimes pushing the resell value of the shoe into the four-figure range.
For Harris, the love of shoes has always been there, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that he could see himself opening up the shop.
“Most people think it’s because of (Michael) Jordan,” Harris said, “but my love of shoes comes from Magic Johnson. He was my favorite player, so I had to wear those purple and yellow Converses to be like him.
“I would carry newspapers and cut grass all summer long so when school would start I could have enough pairs to make myself look cool.”
Harris said when he decided he wanted to open up a store in Central Virginia, Lynchburg jumped off the map right away due to its younger population, thanks to the many colleges in the area.
“The high-dollar shoes aren’t going to do well here,” he said, “I’ll be honest with you ... many of these kids are going through college, or some are still in high school. It’s tough for them to go get the high-dollar shoe.”
Harris said he doesn’t really sell many “grails,” so called because of their rarity. Grails are often the most expensive or coolest shoe in somebody’s collection.
Selling shoes in the middle price range works in Lynchburg because buyers can look cool while not breaking their bank, he said. But he still gets funny looks from parents or grandparents who come into the store with a younger person looking to buy new shoes.
Harris said he doesn’t haggle on prices, but he does love offering somebody a coin toss over the shoe.
“If you want a shoe for $250 and I want to sell it for more, we’ll coin toss. Heads and tails, if you win I’ll meet your price, but we don’t lose a lot around here,” he said.
While Harris is only coming up on one year in business, he is already looking at expanding, and he’s even looking at other cities near central Virginia, such as Charlottesville.
When he decided to launch the store, he built it up with roughly 600 pairs of sneakers.
“Now, it’s hard to keep every spot filled on these shelves,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling, man, working in the community and having people recognize our logo on a T-shirt, or when you see a kid who comes in the store and says they’ve seen you on social media or something,” Harris said.
“Being a Black business owner and a small business owner, I take that with a lot of pride. There’s a lot of people who are in the same boat as me that inspired me to move forward with this, but I left a lot behind and I’m not nervous at all.”