By Ken Stone
Fifteen years ago, the quirky website of San Diego’s first running store chain carried a story headlined “Movin Shoes to Become Duct Tape R Us.”
“DT [Duct Tape] is the perfect material — just right for any running occasion,” opined store co-owner Jarl Blintz. “It’s taken years for the scales to fall from our eyes, but we realize we can no longer, in good faith, charge people $115 for bloated shoes or $60 for baggy pants when a well placed strip of tape will more than do the job. And at just $2.95 per roll, both we and our customers can sleep better at night.”
Jarl Blintz was a play on Movin Shoes co-owner Carl Brandt, but the Onion-style post was in character for an operation that grew to four stores and became synonymous with San Diego’s running boom.
Now the business has gone bust.
Bob Kennedy, the two-time Olympian and former 5,000-meter American record-holder who bought the operation in 2013, has closed Movin Shoes’ last two stores. The Encinitas shop was shuttered Aug. 19 and Pacific Beach last Sunday.Kennedy didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.
But Meb Keflezighi, the San Diego running legend who partnered with Indianapolis-based Kennedy, said in a statement: “I am very sad to see the closing of Movin Shoes. While I was a minority shareholder in the business, I did not have a voice or role in the operation of the business and the decision to close the stores.”
The Boston Marathon winner called the move a “big loss” for San Diego’s running community.
He wasn’t alone.
Local running luminaries are paying tribute:
“Movin Shoes has been at the center of everything running in San Diego for as long as I can remember and for longer than I have been here,” said Tracy Sundlun, a founder of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon series. “It was the soul of the sport and Carl was the pastor. … This is another sad day for San Diego running.”
Former Competitor Magazine editor Bob Babbitt, referring to Brandt and co-founder Rick Vandertie, said: “They lived it and breathed it. They weren’t just a store. They were a clubhouse, the authorities. … They were the lifeblood of running in San Diego.”
Marco Anzures, president of the local chapter of USA Track & Field, said: “Movin Shoes was always an ardent supporter, and for that I can say our association and its long distance running community are forever grateful.”
And local coach Paul Greer said: “San Diego has lost a great institution.”Movin Shoes was inspired by a store of the same name in Madison, Wisconsin, which opened in 1973 after Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Munich Olympic marathon.
Herb Kimpel helped start the namesake store. In 1978, a year after Brandt and Vandertie started their original store in Mission Beach, Kimpel himself moved to San Diego, even helping staff the La Mesa shop in 2011-2013 while winding up his career as a real-estate appraiser.
“They were the real deal here,” Kimpel, 68, said in a phone interview from his home near Grossmont College. “They really got involved with the community, giving talks to track teams and corporate health events and stuff. They’re good guys.”
Greer, the San Diego Track Club coach, cheered Movin Shoes for sponsoring or putting on events in all facets of the sport — road running (weekly runs from all stores like the La Mesa “Whine at 9” and Black Mountain “nightmare races”), cross country (sponsoring the USATF Dirt Dog series for many years) and track and field (hosting low-cost all-comers meets for many years).
Babbitt recalled runners wearing dark singlets with the Movin Shoes logo: “When the black shirts showed up at a race, they were bad-ass. As bad-ass as a skinny little runner guy can be.”
Greer said Vandertie was a regular at San Diego Track Club workouts, “and he was always very warm and genuine. Carl is a living legend in the running shoe store business.”
The pair (also Wisconsin natives) were a presence at San Diego CIF track meets, selling individual shoe spikes to high school athletes who “desperately needed them before their championship races,” Greer said.
In fact, catering to high school runners was their bread-and-butter. And almost their undoing.
In 1977, San Diego’s Movin Shoes sold Nikes exclusively — getting shipments from the Wisconsin Movin Shoes. But ignoring the “suggested retail price,” Brandt and Vandertie undersold West Coast distributors of Phil Knight’s hot-selling running shoes.
(High school cross country runners got a special break.)
Brandt, a 67-year-old La Mesan, says other Nike sellers were asking: “‘Who the heck are you? Why are you selling shoes so cheap?’ And Nike cut us off fairly quickly.”It was a “major scramble” to find other suppliers, he said, but the 3838 Mission Boulevard store slowly expanded into brands such as Saucony and Brooks. (Nike would return about a decade later.)
“We made a whole lot of money for the Dolfin rep at the time,” Brandt said. “We sold more Dolfin shorts than you could imagine — those old striped ones.”
Brandt said their attitude was “if we sell a reasonable amount, life will be fine,” insisting that he and Vandertie “never made a whole lot of money off that store, no matter what people think.”
With Vandertie test-driving new shoes, the business became famous for being “fussy about the fit.” Customers embraced the personal attention.
Said Babbitt: “What I loved about those guys — you’d walk in and try on a pair of shoes, and they said: ‘Go for a run [on streets outside]. Make sure the shoes work for you.’ Who does that?”
The stores — eventually comprising Pacific Beach, Encinitas, La Mesa and briefly Rancho Peñasquitos — became mini-museums to local and even world running, with autographed shirts and shoes displayed on the walls. They had a blog.
But the funky feel began to change with the Kennedy sale in March 2013.
Brandt, while continuing to work another two years transferring inventory between stores, said Kennedy’s purchasing was “not what the people working on the floor wished.”
And when the Encinitas and Pacific Beach stores were remodeled, he said, “they literally took the heart and soul — with the double meaning of soul — out of the stores.”
Gone were the memorabilia, for instance.
“It became a very corporate, vanilla-looking store,” Brandt said of Pacific Beach, using a phrase he said others used.
Kimpel, of the original Madison Movin Shoes, noted the onset of online shoe buying.
“I know that people would come into Movin Shoes before it was sold to Bob Kennedy and I witnessed it myself: People trying on shoes, finding one they like, and then sitting down on the [store] bench and seeing what was the best price they could find it for on the Internet.”
Customers would use Movin Shoes expertise to help them find the shoe best for them — “but buy it elsewhere,” he said. “They’ll probably cry about those places not existing anymore — not realizing they were part of their demise.”
Babbitt said Movin Shoes under Kennedy — who also ran his own chain of running stores in Indiana — lost touch with the local running community.
“When it got to the point where you walk into Movin Shoes and you don’t know anybody, just some strangers in there, well, I can order shoes from a stranger on Amazon,” Babbitt said. “The personal touch is really what makes success, and the fact that Movin Shoes has gone away means they lost the personal touch. That’s the reality of the situation.”
But the spirit remains.Greg Lemon, co-owner of Milestone Running in North Park, said he’ll resurrect Movin Shoes’ ambience when he takes over the lease of the Garnet Avenue store.
Originally planning to add a downtown location, Lemon said he and partner Chad Crawford decided to reach out to Kennedy about a month ago, having heard that he was looking to quit.
“We just know he was having a really difficult time kind of managing the stores from Indianapolis,” Lemon said. “He thought it would be a lot easier.”
What will the PB store look like?
Lemon said it would convey an “urban feel with more of a beach house — without a doubt Pacific Beach.” But the original occupant will be resurrected.
“Movin Shoes is going to be everywhere in there,” said Lemon, 31. “We definitely want to pay homage to them.”
He says a timeline on one wall will depict Movin Shoes as the “Before Christ” period. “Carl gave us the original signs from the La Mesa store.”
Milestone will continue the tradition of Monday night and Mount Soledad runs — again organized by a former Movin Shoes staffer. Five ex-employees of Movin Shoes will work the PB location, scheduled to open Tuesday.
Anzures, the local USATF association president, recalls the “down-to-earth vibe” of the Movin Shoes stores when he visited in high school.“As a young runner, I never felt intimidated to ask questions and I was actually surprised when the employees, especially owner Carl Brandt, knew who I was and could recall all major high school running results,” he said.
He said they would be missed but was happy to see that Milestone, “a respected local running store,” will pick up where Movin Shoes left off.
Vandertie and Brandt shared their reactions to the closing.
“It’s probably time,” Vandertie said via Facebook Messenger from his home in Christchurch, New Zealand. “I understand it is not what it used to be anyway.”
He said when the store started, “we had the philosophy that serving the needs of runners was more important than profits. …. My hope is that the new guys from Milestone will take that baton as Movin Shoes finishes its leg of the race and carry it for the runners of San Diego.”
Brandt’s emotions are “multifold and complex,” he said.
“I was sad because the name Movin Shoes meant a great deal to me and to the running community for so many years,” he said, “but I was also glad that what had become an inadequate customer experience was no longer going to be happening under the name Movin Shoes.”Vandertie left the States with his wife, Lynn, about 14 years ago, but stays in touch with his old friend Brandt. (Vandertie is expected at a San Diego “old runners” reunion later this month.)
Brandt said he decided to sell to Kennedy’s group 5 1/2 years ago in the wake of his wife’s death. Sue Brandt had breast cancer that spread to the liver.
“So all this other stuff, including me being told at the end of last year that I have prostate cancer — that’s a piece of cake compared with watching the person you love die in your arms,” he said.
Brandt said his cancer, also in his spine, has been treated since January with hormone therapy. And despite near zero testosterone levels, “Most of the time I feel fine.”
He takes daily strolls of 75 to 90 minutes, and passes homeless people, realizing “I am so fortunate.”
He boasts of his sons — Noah, nearly 28, who works at a Castro Valley hospital near Oakland, and Peter, 25, a park ranger moving soon to Big Sur.
“Now my understanding is that I’ll probably live for decades,” Brandt said. “Hey, I get to wake up every morning, go for my morning walk, sit down and read a book. I’m good.”
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