Temple of the Fresh Kicks

Photo courtesy Tak KatoThere's not much to Blends. No door, just a gaping presidium arch showcasing a single bench, a floor-to-ceiling mirror and some dairy cases. Not that you'll notice the bench or the mirror. It's the cases—spit-spot and brightly lit—that are the first and, for a while, only thing anyone notices. That and what they contain: sneakers. Sneakers—and sneakers alone—being what Blends sells.

And though the cases are a great piece of theater, there is something else about them. While women copped long ago to some physio-psycho-sexual connection with shoes that's too disgusting to even consider seeing as it involves the foot—ugly business, that—men have normally viewed footwear, especially sneakers, in strictly utilitarian terms: purchased for a specific sport/activity and/or comfort. Not surprisingly, men have gotten into the habit of buying their sneakers in Big Box sporting-goods stores—where searching among the strewn has a decidedly Fall of Saigon feel to it—or athletic “shoe stores” that manage to squeeze in a few pairs among the caps, sunglasses, Alex English retro jerseys and something called “compression underwear” (ouch).

There is nothing but sneakers at Blends: street, skate and athletic sneaks; old-school and boutique sneaks; Adidas, Nike, Asics, Ice Cream, Pro Keds, Vans and PF Flyers, to mention a very few. There they are in dairy cases, fixed upon by lookie-loos, club kids and Japanese shoppers (located in Costa Mesa's the Lab, Blends is a short tour-bus ride from South Coast Plaza). There are the sneakerphiles who purchase with no intention of ever wearing—their objets d'art destined for homemade shrines—and there are the fortysomethings who finally, finally have—for $60—the Pro Keds someone said were too expensive at $16 in 1975. How you like me now, mom?

For all of them, Blends raises the sneaker up as worthy: worthy to be gazed upon, worthy to be backlit. There they are, in their cases, available yet distant. You hold the door for them. You reach out to them. You ask to try them on, and your shoe is brought to you on a tray. All of it creating an ambience of . . . is reverence too strong a word?

Let's allow Lamar Mills of Pasadena to answer that. In February, Lamar and a gaggle of other sneakerphiles waited outside Blends in the rain one night for the chance to buy a pair of the just-released Nike Lebron James “Denver” and/or “Temptations.” Upon receiving his pair, Lamar raised them to his face and licked the white matte-finish high-tops with pinkish-purple patent-leather accents.

“I gotta lick 'em,” he said. “It's fresh, and it's my tradition.”

Blends was the only store in California selling the Denver and Temptations, the spoils of a well-earned reputation for discernment shared by Blends owners Tak Kato and Mike Toe, who've also opened a Blends in San Diego, and their customers. When designer Marc Jacobs came out with his take on the Vans slip-on, Blends was one of a few U.S. stores selected to carry it.

Given its standing, it's nice that Blends is still able to offer satisfaction at a fair price. Global shopping site Superfuture.com singles Blends out as the place “for the sneakerhead who shops wisely.” Which partly explains why the average customer—the majority of whom are men—buys at least two pairs and why it's not unusual for someone to leave the store lugging five or six boxes.

Did I say lugging? I meant carrying, holding, cleaving unto. My bad.


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