Sports

After 35 years, Bill Rodgers’s famed running center closes

At Bill Rodgers’s store, the handwriting has been on the wall, and on Wednesday, the sign was on the window.
At Bill Rodgers’s store, the handwriting has been on the wall, and on Wednesday, the sign was on the window.david L. ryan/globe staff

The Wall of Gloves, signed by immortals from A to Z, still was in place, a couple of bottles of Laphroaig single malt sat on the storeroom shelf, and a few stacks of T-shirts remained Wednesday afternoon just a few hours before another Boston institution closed its doors, this one in Faneuil Hall’s North Market. After 35 years, the Bill Rodgers Running Center gave up the ghost on All Hallow’s Eve.

“This is the right time to stop,” concluded Rodgers, who with brother Charlie and childhood friend Jason Kehoe created a gathering place that was to road racers what the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company was to Ernest Hemingway and his fellow expatriates in the 1920s. “It’s like being a marathoner.”

The first of what would become three stores opened in Cleveland Circle in 1977, when Rodgers was ranked as the planet’s top marathoner.

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“We were riding the wave,” recalled Rodgers, the affable, blond-headed Peter Pan who sat atop the crest of a running boom that still is surging.

Whether you were an Olympic champion or a blistered newbie, you eventually found your way to the BRRC.

“They saw the members of our community through many of the American glory years and were there to inspire and accommodate runners of all abilities through the huge growth in our sport,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first women’s marathon at the Games. “I have yet to find a more authentic and grounded store and staff educated to the best interests of runners.”

Millions of Americans now run thousands of road races every year, and most of them buy their shoes and gear from big-box stores in massive suburban malls or order customized models online. A brother act, no matter how professional and congenial it might have been, located amid a warren of shops near the downtown waterfront, was operating on borrowed time.

“It was the big picture,” reckoned Charlie, who has been clearing out both stock and memorabilia for days.

The tipping point came in June with the death of Kehoe, who had known the Rodgers brothers since they were toddlers in Newington, Conn., and who had run high school cross-country with them.

“The store had been struggling financially for some time,” said Bill. “But that took the wind out of us.”

The shopkeeping burden fell to Charlie, who eventually found himself working 100-hour weeks, counting the commute from Ipswich.

“Charlie needed a break,” said Bill. “He was going in every day.”

It was, from beginning to end, a family enterprise that transcended business.

“It had a wonderful spirit of pure running,” recalled Roberta Gibb, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966 when she had to jump in after the start in Hopkinton to avoid expulsion from an all-male race. “It was almost like a family, I would say, and the people who came in felt that they were going to be welcomed into that family.”

Rodgers was making a point by calling his place a running center.

“We always wanted to be more than just a retail store,” he said. “We wanted to be an inspirational and informational center. That side I think we did a good job with.”

Both the store and the website became repositories of running advice and lore. There were Sports Illustrated covers of Rodgers in triumph, framed photos, newspaper stories, racing bibs, video clips, interviews, and Rodgers’s 1974 running log. The Wall of Gloves, with rows of the fabled Mickey Mouse-style white painter’s gauntlets that Rodgers sported on chilly days and were signed by everyone from Samuelson to Frank Shorter to Grete Waitz to Emil Zatopek.

If you bought a pair of gloves or a T-shirt or a cap, the man himself might be there to sign them and chat about training methods.

“Bill was so approachable,” said Tommy Leonard, the Falmouth Road Race founder who tended bar at the Eliot Lounge when it was the pavement pounder’s destination watering hole. “He welcomed everybody. They treated everybody equally at the store. They were totally democratic.”

Boston Billy, like the Elder and Younger Kelleys before him, was the people’s champion. Rodgers, who won Boston four times, was coming into the prime of his career when he opened his first store on a $4,000 stake.

“Charlie was a former drug and alcohol counselor and I was a former teacher,” he recalled. “We weren’t business people. We were winging it the whole way, but we had fun. We created some magic, a little bit.”

For two decades, marathon pilgrims had two Boston places to which they were drawn to pay homage each April: the Eliot and “Bill’s Store.”

“We got people from Europe, South America, Japan coming in here, taking pictures of themselves,” said Charlie. “I had a guy from Indiana come in this morning.”

On the Tuesday after the marathon, the running center invariably was jammed.

“The last few years, I was in there signing books, and the line to get in to see Bill wound around and up the stairs,” said Gibb. “He’s really an icon.”

The icon still laces up and runs, but he is pushing 65 now. Charlie will begin collecting Social Security in December.

“We’ve got a lot of miles on us,” Bill acknowledged.

With the shelves empty in their corner of the North Market building and the door closed for good, the brothers are pondering which signposts to follow. They would like to revive the Jingle Bell Run with a new sponsor and stage a few other races, possibly one to benefit a zoo.

“It’s the stunted-growth child in me,” confessed Bill.

They’re thinking about selling running memorabilia on their website, if only as a means of thinning out the boxes now chock-a-block in Charlie’s house. Or marketing T-shirts emblazoned with some of Bill’s pet axioms (“The marathon can humble you”).

His first racing center opened in a day when the best marathoners still ran Boston for a laurel wreath, a trophy, and a bowl of beef stew, when the Kenyans still were focused on cross-country and steeplechase and the only Nike was the goddess of victory.

“Thirty-five years is a long time, a lot of history there,” Bill Rodgers mused. “But onward and forward, right?”

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