“We’re here. We’re like fixtures in the community. If you can’t do it here, if you couldn’t sell chocolate in Hershey, PA, than where else can you sell it?” Byron Gans describes his experience co-owning The Shoe Kings with his brother Darien Gans. The store, located on Mt. Ephraim Ave. in Camden, NJ, specializes in vintage sneakers and sports nostalgia that Darien first started to collect in his youth.
The Philadelphia born and Camden raised brothers know business comes first. “We have bills and obligations to take care of,” shares Byron. “We don’t have the luxury of playing house or playing store owner. Either you make it or you don’t.” Yet they believe money can be made in a way that also improves and gives back to the neighborhood. Their store length front window showcases sneakers and draws attention from the rest of the block’s boarded up buildings. Byron talks about the positive feedback they’ve received. “People say, ‘it looks nice in here. I just never thought I could afford shoes out of here because it looks so expensive.’ I said no, we have stuff for forty or fifty dollars. It’s not for free, but we have reasonable prices. And I say why can’t we have a nice store? Why should it be cold? And why should I serve you something through Plexiglas? I say we’re not doing that to the people around here.”
The brothers share the same sense of responsibility when it comes to local youth. “A lot of kids come in here,” Darien mentions. “They come in just to say hello. They see us running the place. And I think it kind of inspires them.” Darien and Byron look out for these youth and others in the neighborhood. Eric Spearman, a friend of the brothers, says some other store owners “really don’t care about my son that’s walking these streets. You have the neighborhood drug dealer in your store and my son coming in. You don’t care as long as he has a dollar in his pocket.” The Gans brothers are different. “Half the people that come in here are people that went to school with us or they played for Camden High. We’re all affiliated with one another. We know who’s who and we know who’s who,” Byron remarks, alluding to people who are negative influences.
Darien and Byron have big plans for the future. “We do a lot of custom work now, painting sneakers and all, but we want to learn how to make shoes and help create jobs,” Darien explains. “We’re headed downtown. Our goal is to take the chips that we’ve made here. Do well business-wise, economically-wise, and buy a property there so we can continue what we’re doing. We’ll always be in the community, but we also have big plans,” which includes stores in other cities.
With opening The Shoe Kings, the Gans brothers are taking advantage of the opportunity they see in Camden. Their friend Eric notes, “being from here we get categorized. Once you hear Camden, soon as you mention it to the corporations, immediately we’re on the defensive. Don’t walk down Mt. Ephraim Ave., don’t say ‘hi’, because of the wrap. But when you open the orange up, peel the orange, see the real fruit, then it’s a different taste.” The Shoe Kings are just one example of the sweetness found in the city.