Bruce Deck – husband, father of four, character of the larger than life variety – is, first and foremost, a collector of sneakers. He has over seven hundred pairs. Several of the pairs are duplicates and most of them probably cost more than a hundred dollars. The owners and workers of Deck’s shop of choice not only know him by name but they treat him like a V.I.P. Who knows how much he has spent, how he can afford it, where he stores them all, or if he'll even get to wear each pair? Such is the life of a dedicated collector. If Sneakerheads is any indication, Deck doesn't regret a penny.
He's not alone. Whether you call it a hobby, an addiction, or a fixation, the act of collecting is not limited to Airs Max and Jordan. Far from it -- fueled by nostalgia, a sense of investment, and an insatiable urge to have the best collection (a reward in and of itself), people collect damn near everything. From old standbys like antique books and postage stamps to bizarre curiosities like Coca Cola Cans and (why not?) mammal penises1, people all over the world have been passionately collecting items of seemingly arbitrary value for a long time.
In fact, if you count libraries, the first collection was made as early as 2600 BC! But that’s kind of cheap -- while a library is technically a collection, it is much too practical. We’ll take art, for starters. A painting or a sculpture is not a particularly practical thing to own, really. It’s a nice decoration, certainly doesn’t hurt as a status symbol, and can be a worthy investment, but a resourceful debater could even make the argument that having a collection of sneakers is marginally more practical than having a collection of art (art doesn’t protect your feet, for one thing). Yet, barring libraries, collections of art are the oldest ones. The art collection is the jumpoff -- the justification for all manner of collection.
Renaissance Europe set the scene. Rich families like the Medicis began to pay artists for their work. Others collected bizarre objects -- everything from seashells to animal parts to regular old paintings -- in what were called “cabinets of curiosities.” Collections such as these often ended up as the foundations for large and prominent art museums -- if there is any utilitarian argument for collection, it is that cultural testament we call the museum.
To collectors, their collection itself is their legacy. While some collectors will admit that their hobby of choice is just that, the best collectors by definition treat it like a vocation. Though many may make grander claims, at the end of the day what unites all collectors is, I presume, the thrill of the hunt. As stamp collector Bill Barlow puts it, “Having something that nobody else owns or that very few people own or that they can't afford to own is very gratifying. You're a collector first. What you're going to collect comes next.2” But there is a lot more to be gained from the hobby of collecting than that. The sense of community, for starters. People who collect the same things share jargon (if you don’t care about sneakers, do you know what a “colorway” is?), resources, and hangout spots (both online and, hopefully, offline). The joy of searching for, obtaining, and caring for items that mean absolutely nothing to most people but absolutely everything to a small group is almost inexplicable but it is undeniable to those in the know.
There is a certain universal cultural currency attached to art that may not be shared by a whole lot of the other marginalia that tends to be fodder for many collections. But it’s not as much of a leap from art to sneakers as you might think. Bruce Deck would certainly argue that sneakers are art. And he wouldn’t be wrong. In the wake of pop art and other movements, why should today’s collectors differentiate between their prized items and art? To you and I, a painting may be a better take than a Pez dispenser. But one man’s 1982 World's Fair Astronaut Pez candy dispenser (of which only two ever made) is another man’s Mona Lisa.
Sneaker collection and/or enthusiasm for sneakers in general (sneakerology, if you must) has a rich history rooted in that of hip-hop and basketball. Especially since the fetishization of the sneaker, the shoes have special editions, limited runs, famous designers, pop culture tie-ins, and all sorts of other things collectors rightfully love. Starting with Chuck Taylor and moving on down the line, many famous basketball players and other athletes have been sneakerified. Hip-hop, perhaps more than any other musical genre before it, latched onto the brand allegiance element of fashion to display affluence, regional pride, and general flyness. All of that culminates in the long lines that grace Foot Locker entrances across the country when a line of sneakers dedicated to a player who retired almost fifteen years ago (damn). What better to collect?
Over and over again in Sneakerheads, we hear “He doesn’t even wear them all!” That’s evident enough when Deck licks the bottom of his soles (a move he picked up from a Fat Joe video). Whether or not he wears them is beside the point. Collection is not a practical act. Of course Deck doesn’t wear all of his sneakers -- no more than a DJ spins each of her records, a stamp collector licks each of her stamps, or Sigurður Hjartarson does whatever it is he does with mammal penises to each of the mammal penises he has gathered in the Iceland Phallological Museum (which, I can’t remind you enough, is a real thing -- no pun intended). Collecting is a quest for a bigger, better, more complete and unique collection. It may not be glorious (although ending up in a documentary featuring KRS-One ain’t half bad) but it is very important. There are huge chunks of our cultural heritage that would be missing without the diligent work of collectors (Most of director Georges Méliès’ work, for one example.) The world is a chaotic place. Who better to gather, maintain, and organize our seemingly trivial items than the people who give it all up to do so? What seems like “stuff” today just might be of inconceivable value tomorrow, so embrace the collectors and collections in your life. But try not to lick the bottoms of too many shoes. That can’t be healthy.