One morning in late July, Chris Santos climbed out of bed filled with anxiety over which pair of shoes to wear. This wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary; for Santos, almost every waking moment revolves around athletic footwear. He spends at least an hour a day on websites like NiceKicks (“the most read source for sneaker news, information, history, and release dates”). He hunts down steals on eBay, reads magazines like Sole Collector, and watches YouTube videos posted by connoisseurs who go by names like “Perfect Pair” and “Soley Ghost.” He meticulously stockpiles his collection in a closet: fifty pairs, stored in their original boxes and organized by edition number. He once spent $700 on a single pair—some Nikes called “ What the LeBron.” Making a shoe statement is a daily preoccupation.
But on this day, Santos’s choice of footwear was of particular importance. The 28-year-old wasn’t just going to be showing off for his clients at the Pura Nutrition store, where he is known as the fit, compact personal trainer with a flair for pedal fashion. He had a more important role to play, as a representative of the Laredo Sneakerhead Society. He and the club’s three other organizers would pull on their matching T-shirts, their names emblazoned on the back, and drive five hours to the NRG Center, in Houston, for the Sneaker Summit, one of the premier footwear events in the country. The shoes Santos wore had to impress the right people.
“I had to think about it for a couple of days,” he said later. He considered the orange LeBron 9 Big Bangs and the black Jordan 11 Space Jams but finally settled on some black-and-Carolina-blue Air Jordan 5’s from the 2006 LS series. “They’re OG,” he said, meaning they were pristine. “I picked something that not too many of these young kids are going to have—or even know about.”
He and his buddies arrived 45 minutes before the doors opened and walked to the end of the VIP line in the NRG Center’s cacophonous hallway, where roughly a thousand sneakerheads were already waiting. This was Santos’s first time at the summit, and he observed that the number of early arrivals alone was significantly greater than the entire attendance of the shoe-appreciation events he and his friends had organized in Laredo. He nodded approvingly at the sneakers other people were wearing. “Everybody’s seeing what everybody else is rocking,” Santos said. A satisfied smile spread across his face as he looked at his own feet. “I haven’t seen anybody wearing these yet.”
At three sharp, the doors to the 80,000-square-foot exhibit area opened, and everyone in the line craned his neck to get a peek inside. There, filling the cavernous room, were shoes—hundreds and hundreds of them, stacked on display tables like bright and glossy rows of candy. Shoes in every color and pattern (complementary hues, polka dots, neons); shoes of every material (faux lizard, shiny plastic, fur); shoes with every conceivable kind of accessory (tails, teddy bear heads, five-inch-long wings unfolding off the heel). Some glowed when you flashed a light on them. Some featured a spongy fabric casing that zipped over the laces, as if the shoes were wearing warm-up jackets. One mimicked the design of a Heineken beer label.
(Rows and rows of shoes filled the NRG Center in Houston. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
The crowd buzzed with excitement as ticket scanners granted access. The members of the Laredo Sneakerhead Society followed a group headed for the display booths, while others in line gravitated toward a separate trading area, where sellers quickly set up shop and began hoisting their goods high in the air, walking through the crowd in a large circle as they looked for buyers. One group of kids from Elkins High School, near Houston, built a makeshift exhibit of about twenty boxes in the middle of the trading floor and commenced bartering with a passion that would embarrass a Marrakech rug salesman. Adam, a high school junior with long eyelashes and short-cropped hair, yanked up his sagging jean shorts and thrust a pair of bulky sneakers out to one of his roaming associates. “Go walk around with these,” he instructed. “If they have something to trade, come back.”
“And not with something stupid,” added Adam’s colleague Sam, a senior.
“Hey-hey!” Adam shouted as a young man walked past. “What size are your Galaxies?” Adam pointed to the Foamposite Nikes that the teen was wearing, painted with a purple-and-blue night sky scene and embellished with indented swoops, black laces, and glow-in-the-dark soles. Adam had wanted Galaxies for two years. To afford them—they cost somewhere between $600 and $1,000—he had been buying other shoes low and selling them high, saving his profits for months. But this particular guy’s Galaxies were the wrong size. Adam waved him away and squatted to improve his view of the parade of other shoes moving in his direction.
(The trading floor at the Houston Sneaker Summit. | Photograph by Marco Torres)
An older buyer, in his thirties, walked up and browsed the Elkins High boys’ cluster of wares, finally picking up a pair of Air Jordan 7 Olympics, white-and-silver high-tops that looked a little like something a robot might wear in a sixties-era science fiction movie. “I’ll give you a hundred and thirty,” he said as they slipped out of his hands.
“Hundred and fifty,” Adam shouted, explaining, “You dropped them!”
Sam intervened as the calm voice of reason. “One-forty,” Sam said, modifying the counteroffer. “We got the OG box, yo.”
The man pulled out a stack of bills folded in half. “I got one-thirty right here,” he said.
The teens shouted in unison. “They’re ice!” After consulting each other in whispers, they repeated together. “One-forty.”
The man looked amused and continued to hold his money out.
At this point, Sam relented. “You got it, bro,” he said.
As Sam took the money, Adam kept the hustle going with the next customer. “Buy these, bro,”