Jon Zobel has a hot business going, flipping hip hop-inspired limited edition sneakers, hats and watches to like-minded collectors for wads of cash.
He is 13.
The "sneakerhead" trend of buying and selling limited edition sneakers for fun and profit began in the 1980s with the rise of hip-hop culture. Now it has trickled down to teens, who hoard birthday money and holiday checks to buy pricey sneakers with a cult-like following.
Jon, who just completed seventh grade at University School in Davie, owns more than 30 pairs of pristine, hard-to-find sneakers. Displayed on shelves lining his Plantation bedroom, the footwear is the hipster teen’s answer to the coin collection.
"I really like the way they look, and I like them because I make a lot of money selling them," he said.
Jon bought his first pair of kicks with money he made washing cars when he was 12. It became an intoxicating hobby, finding a unique pair, then marking it up and reselling it via Facebook or eBay.
He was able to boost his inventory in November with $500 of his Bar Mitzvah money, said his mom, Julie Zobel-Talenfeld, president of Boardroom Communications, a public relations agency.
"He is such a wheeler-dealer. He took that $500 and turned it into $2,000," she said. "He used that to buy a Harley Davidson golf cart that was worth $6,000."
Jon’s most expensive pair, a "What the dunks" released in 2007 by Nike, is a compilation of every skateboard shoe Nike every made.
Street value: More than $1,000.
Zobel-Talenfeld said her son spends hours meticulously detailing his collection, using special soap to clean the laces and bleach to whiten the midsoles. One pair is shrinkwrapped so they don’t yellow.
Jon says he sells about 90 percent of his stock, reserving special pairs as collector items. He wears some shoes, carefully using a heel-to-toe gait so he doesn’t scuff the bottoms.
"He goes all out," his mom said. "If he goes into something, he doesn’t just give 100 percent, he gives 250 percent."
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Events called Dunkxchanges, where sneakerheads gather to trade and sell merchandise, are held during the day at nightclubs such as Revolution in Fort Lauderdale, Opium at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood and Nocturnal and 90 Degrees in Miami.
Three friends who recently completed eighth grade, Dylan Cane at North Broward Preparatory in Coconut Creek and Anthony Broderick and Jordan Cohen at West Glades Middle in Parkland, started their own company, Solexchangefl, in April. Their first event, in Parkland, had 3 vendor tables and about 150 collectors on the floor. Their second event, at Club Boca in Boca Raton, had twice as many vendors and
hundreds of attendees.
Dylan, a Parkland resident who bought his first pair of sneakers in the summer of 2010 with birthday money, said he’s made a lot of money selling shoes. Among his spoils: an iPhone and a $700 Nikon camera.
"Maybe your first pair of shows you get your parents to chip in, but the idea is to buy them for less and sell them for more," Dylan said.
Craigslist, eBay and websites such as solecollector.com are big marketplaces for shoes. Kids also are trading wads of cash for pricey sneakers at school, making sales at lockers and in between classes.
Dylan said one pair, a Nike Lebron South Beach pre-Heat pair, cost him $300. He sold it for $650. Profits helped fuel his new business venture.
"My partners and I have sold enough to chip in and rent Club Boca, print fliers and buy the website for our business," he said. "My parents didn’t give me any money for that."
George Coloney, 15, who splits his time between his mom’s in Weston and dad’s in Fort Lauderdale, has more than 100 pairs of sneakers. Though he started collecting at about age 11, he doesn’t aim to make profits off of buying and selling. He buys shoes because he likes them.
"I’m into quality footwear, whether its sneakers or Cole-Haan," said George, who completed ninth grade at University School. "I like the way they look, I like the meaning of the shoe and the story behind
George, who works at Rarefootage, a sneaker store at the Seminole Hard Rock, has made a name for himself running a YouTube channel and Twitter feed under the name Stickie213. Since 2008, George has made more than 200 videos reviewing sneakers, many as pre-releases.
"I do it to market myself, to brand myself, so when I call Nike, I’m not some random name; they’ve heard of me," he said. "Sometimes I can get access to shoes really early."
One of his choice YouTube interviews was with Jason Petrie, who designs LeBron James’ shoes for Nike.
"I want to see where these things can take me," George said. "I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m older, but I know I’m going to be a billionaire."
Looking out for ripoffs
Dylan says there are plenty of fakes being manufactured that can dupe new collectors. It all comes down to subtle nuances. Sometimes a label will be off, or the tongue of a shoe won’t feel quite right.
There’s always a danger of being taken, even at collector events.
Jon Zobel has scored some deals at Dunkexchanges, but he’s been burned, too.
One of his most expensive pair of kicks – worth $560 – was stolen there. Now he hires his stepbrother, Eric, 24, to guard his stock.
"Other kids have had things stolen, too. That’s what I don’t like," Zobel-Talenfeld said.
A design culture
Danny Waserstein, owner of Shoe Gallery in Miami, which has sold limited edition sneakers since 1979, said most pf his sneaker collector customers are males age 15 to 21, though there are some as young as 13.
Waserstein says young collectors are drawn to sneakers that their favorite athletes wear or that reflect their favorite sport.
"Sneakers are a great way for them to buy something special that they can show off by actually wearing," Waserstein said. "If you collect something like baseball cards, there’s no way for you to really show it off."
Zobel-Talenfeld, the public relations firm president, said she and Jon’s stepdad, an attorney, don’t mind Jon’s street-inspired look, popular with sneakerheads. Sporting an earring in each ear, Jon gets his hair trimmed every four days with a "tape," short, straight bangs indented into both sides. He favors "snapbacks," logoed baseball caps, and G-Shock watches.
"I think it’s fine," his mom dismissed. "He’s still extremely well groomed."
And he’s still a kid, she said.
"If his behavior isn’t good, we use consequences - we take away something from his collection."