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Like New York and Tokyo, Boston has its own dedicated sneaker subculture

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Nike Air Zoom FC Alien Workshop -- Created for Nike's skate board line. $65 at Laced. (Globe staff photo/Dina Rudick)   Photo Gallery See more collectible sneakers

The situation appears to be scripted for a Steve Guttenberg detective movie, the direct-to-DVD variety that airs on basic cable after 1 a.m. A boxy, middle-aged man walks into a decrepit convenience store and looks around cautiously at the shelves of cat food, laundry detergent, and pickled eggs. ``You guys sell sneakers here?" he asks. He is told to stand on a linoleum tile and a secret door slides open. The scruffy man steps through the hidden passage way out of the convenience store and into a bright, immaculate space with soaring 16-foot ceilings, bamboo and mahogany floors with granite inlays, and floor-to-ceiling rosewood bookcases filled with expensive sneakers.

What looks like a superhero's secret lair is Boston's latest contender in the exploding sneaker collecting scene. The store, called Bodega, looks precisely like a run-down corner market, down to the vintage linoleum floor, coolers of Moxie , stacks of toilet paper, and fliers for lost cats. But behind the facade (Bodega's owners asked that details of the secret passage not be revealed) is a posh store that sells limited - edition sneakers ranging in price from $80 to $2 , 000.

``I've always thought of the corner store as the corner stone of the neighborhood," says Oliver Mak , one of the owners of Bodega. ``When you're a kid, you bike down to the corner store and you hang out with all the people there. We wanted a space like that for creative types."

Bodega joins sneaker boutique Laced, which opened this winter, and Concepts, which turns 10 this year, as suppliers to a subculture that communicates through word-of-mouth, Internet sites, specialty magazines, and sneaker parties. Sneakerheads -- a few are willing to call themselves addicts -- collect limited - edition (read expensive) lines of sneakers, getting up at the crack of dawn or camping out overnight to get the latest Air Jordan retro or Nike SB . The culture is so ardent that the owners of Bodega didn't bother to put a sign on the front of the store. Word spreads, and the collectors follow.

Sneaker culture has been thriving in New York and Tokyo for the past decade. Boston has been slower to adapt, and these are not sneakers that can be found in mass quantities at Foot Locker . They are produced in limited runs and distributed through smaller stores like Karmaloop , a street wear boutique that opened last year on Newbury Street, or brand stores such as Niketown . Some are limited to specific geographic areas -- true collectors hop a plane to get them -- and others are produced in ridiculously small runs of 50 or 100. Web sites such as Niketalk.com and Hypebeast.com follow when a shoe will turn up in stores, and for the release of some sneakers, such as the coveted Nike SB Pigeon Dunk , near-riots break out. For those who missed the shoe, the Pigeons can be had on eBay for $1 , 000.

``Sneakers aren't like sneakers anymore," says Spungie (just Spungie, thank you), Boston's foremost sneaker collecting stalwart and manager of Laced. ``They're more like baseball cards. Kids are buying sneakers just because they're limited, hanging on to them for a year, and then flipping them for triple what they paid. It's a hustle, but it's a legitimate hustle."

According to Mak, sneaker culture ``encompasses the 'hood, it encompasses skate kids, it encompasses the graffiti scene. If it were all skate kids, Tony Hawk would be the spokesman. But it's musicians like Pharrell and Nigo ." No matter who they are, aficionados can tell you every store, web site, and magazine that exists on the topic.

Sneaker culture also encompasses people like the scruffy, mid-life gent who stumbled into Bodega. Collecting has bubbled up from the underground and landed in mainstream culture, and that doesn't make hard-core sneakerheads happy. As collecting gains more attention, hard-to-find sneakers are sought after by larger numbers. At Concepts, the Cambridge store tucked away inside the Tannery, manager Deon Point holds rarer stock in the storeroom, selling only to collectors who he knows are serious and dedicated.

``It's cool that more people are getting into it," he says. ``But we want to reward our regular customers. The people who have been with it a long time. It's blowing up to the point where people are just buying something because they think they can make some money off of it."

Collecting has been around since the advent of the sneaker, but collecting in Boston can be traced back directly to Spungie, an erstwhile skateboarder who was wearing out a pair of sneakers every two weeks. Before working at Laced, he was manager at Concepts and became a central figure in collecting.

``I was never really collecting, I was just buying extras of the shoes that I liked because I'd go through them so quickly," he says. ``There's a lot of rumors of how many I'm holding. The most I was ever holding at any given point was 512 pairs, unworn. But then I lost about 110 pairs in a flood in my parents' basement."

Spungie, and most collectors, worship at the sole of the almighty Nike, which has fervently courted the market with its SB (as in skateboard) line, reissues of Air Jordan, and the Dunk. Some collectors, such as 21-year-old E'dris Hardison of Worcester, focus on obtaining a specific sneaker. Hardison has a collection of 76 Air Jordans, a passion he developed from his older siblings. Johnny Earle, the 23-year-old Hull resident and owner of clothing store Johnny Cupcakes , collects sneakers to match the colors and patterns of the clothes he owns, while 37-year-old Lori Lobenstine, web mistress of www.femalesneakerfiend.com , collects because she has always been drawn to sneaker culture.

Availability isn't the only obstacle. Finding the cash to fuel the collecting beast is equally daunting.

``Sometimes I just have to put off paying the bills if I know that there's a sneaker that's going to drop," Hardison says. ``And usually it all works out."

Collaborations between artists and sneaker companies result in some of the most sought-after and expensive models, and sneaker companies are continually signing contracts with musicians, graphic artists, and painters. Last year Canton-based Reebok issued the Jean Michel Basquiat shoe. Initially, only 60 were made and sold at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Since then, 1,500 pairs have been released in three different colorways . The Basquiat Reebopper is selling on eBay for double its retail price of $100.

``The sneakerhead influences the buying tastes of both the consumer and the retailer," says Glen Giovanucci, head of lifestyle product for Reebok.

Bodega plans to use the connection between sneakers and art to host art shows in its gallery-like space.

``The gallery scene on Newbury Street is dying," Mak says. ``People are collecting sneakers like art, and they're discovering artists they like through sneaker collaborations."

Underneath all the justifications for collecting, one simple truth emerges to explain why collectors are so dedicated.

``You want to be able to wear something that no one else has," says sneaker enthusiast Rob Heppler, who runs www.weeklydrop.com and produces a podcast on collecting. ``There's always a silent competition going on. Sneakerheads are checking out each other's kicks, and you want to make sure you've got something on your feet that can stand up to the heat."

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Read the transcript from our chat with sneaker enthusiast Rob Heppler.
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