Dan McQuade Dan McQuade is a writer living in Center City born and raised in the Far Northeast. He writes primarily about culture and sports with varying degrees of silliness. In addition to City Paper, his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Philadelphia magazine, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair and other fine publications.
“What’s going on here?” the woman asks, stumbling in high heels. “Is this a foot-massage parlor?” She looks down across Walnut Street, her joke drawing no laughs from the already-tired group sunk down in their chairs. “We’re waiting for a sneaker,” a voice yells in the night. “I know,” she says. “Why?”
“There’s really no good reason. We just really like sneakers.”
Onlookers’ questions continue through the night as the line stretches closer to 15th Street. The occasion: the release of a new sneaker at Ubiq, the Walnut Street sneaker shop whose most prominent contribution to Philadelphia culture is the “ill” T-shirt.
Athletic-sneaker culture has been around for 30-plus years, but now the kids raised on a diet of basketball and TV commercials in the ’80s and ’90s are young men with jobs and money to burn. They monitor Twitter and Facebook for deals on new kicks. They swap or resell sneakers on eBay. They buy reissues of childhood favorites; I own a retro pair of Air Max 180s, my first running sneaker. In 1991, The Source wrote we were in the “complex, bugged, super duty, high octane, moon boots period” of sneaker culture. Describing that culture today would require at least 25 additional adjectives.
I arrive three hours after Ubiq allows a line to start forming, waiting out earlier thunderstorms while I fretted about which kicks I’d wear to impress the sneakerheads. I slip on a pair of yellow and blue Air Max 2012s and walk over, nabbing a key spot under an awning. I check in and learn I’m No. 51. There are only around 30 people in line; several spots are marked with what I learn are called “ghost chairs.” It’s a tactic familiar to Philadelphians saving parking spots.
It’s a little after 11 p.m. on the last Friday in June. The store opens at 9 a.m. Saturday. I am already tired.
The sneakerheads are camping out for the Benjamin, a limited-edition New Balance 1600 inspired by Philadelphia’s most famous founding father. Though New Balance owns five U.S. factories in New England, the red, white and blue Benjamin — complete with 13 stars on the tongue — is made in Vietnam. Sneaker blogs and message boards have been drooling over this release for weeks. Only the post-championship LeBron kicks are spilling more digital ink. It’s rare to see a line for a running sneaker, especially a smaller brand like New Balance, but Ubiq is the best-known sneaker boutique in town and apparently this release is worth the wait.
In the sneaker line, you are not a person but a number — the lower the number, the less chance you’ll miss out on copping the sneaker. An employee tells me everyone will get a pair, but won’t say how many sneakers are up for grabs. So there’s a sense of dread: What if I wait for 10 hours and they’re out of my size? What if resellers — looking to make a quick profit off the hype — buy up all the pairs? (By the end of Saturday, 26 pairs of the $175 Benjamin are on eBay, at prices ranging from $215 to $400.)
I meet No. 49 (Eddie, West Philly) and No. 50 (Vito, Media). Later, No. 52 (Nick, North Philly) and No. 53 (Alex, North Jersey). The big personality in our part of the line is No. 54 (James, South Philly). He parks his white Escalade on Walnut Street and speaks of reselling sneakers to the “Asian mafia.” Alex pulls me aside later. “He told me he was a Mummer,” he whispers. “What’s a Mummer?”
The topic of conversation is mostly sneakers, though. A lot of people want to talk about what happened in Atlanta: The week before, a man attempting to rob a crowd waiting for the Nike LeBron X “Denim” was shot dead. No charges were filed. “People out here,” a customer told WSB-TV, “they weren’t going for none of that.” By 3 a.m., the usually bustling block is devoid of shoppers and workers. It’s eerie, but I figure we’re safe, thanks to our mob connections.
To pass the time, we spend at least two hours talking about the box. Ubiq has a gimmick for this collaboration: boxes from Brooklyn-based Good Wood, with the Ubiq logo and Benjamin Franklin imagery laser-etched into the sides. Twenty-four buyers who find a key in their cardboard sneaker box get to take their kicks home in a wooden box instead. The people in line speak of the box as if it’s the Ark of the Covenant. “I would shit my pants if I get that box,” Alex says.
Those exhausted from talking sneakers slip off for smoke and 7-Eleven breaks. Others walk around the corner to an alley that’s functioning as the bathroom. I realize that I prefer camping out in Center City to camping out in the woods. It’s all downtime. It’s boring. But it’s also sort of a convention: 100-plus people in Center City overnight, rapping about sneakers for hours. Oddly, I’m enjoying it.
The sun rises and the city begins to stir. People get coffee. A rep from New Balance brings free donuts. Ubiq employees clean up trash. The line swells in size, wrapping around the corner and down 15th Street. Paranoia washes over our section of the line. We psych each other out, trying to estimate the shoe sizes of those in front of us. At 10:30 a.m., two cops show up, reporting complaints from other businesses on the block. They’re told the Atlanta story, too. “That guy got what he deserved,” the officer says.
I finally enter the shop just after the 12-hour mark. Tired and sweaty, I walk into the Ubiq elevator, which is not in service because it’s stacked to the top with sneaker boxes. Looking to get to bed as soon as possible, I ask for the one on top in my size. As a friendly employee hands it to me, I notice: It’s falling apart. I hadn’t cared about the box much in line, but I get excited. I pay and an employee helps me check inside. My hunch was right. There’s a key.
The store employees whoop. I put my sneakers in the wood box and pose for a celebratory photo. When I finish, I notice Alex checking out at the register; he, too, found a key. His pants unsoiled, we exchange an overly excited high five. I walk outside into an instant market for the box (No. 10 of 24). I decline to sell; it can be used to hold my ashes when I die.
I head home, my sneaker campout more of a success than I would have imagined. Now, to never do it again. Maybe.