On September 8, Universal Sole Running Store owner Joel Feinberg announced that at the end of the month, the store’s doors will close.
As Universal Sole approaches its final days, Feinberg looks back on his nine years as owner, and says he doesn’t regret a thing; being an independently owned retail business is difficult enough, but Feinberg feels they are ending on a high note.
“At our most recent Tap Room Run, everyone thought I was going to turn around and say ‘just kidding, we’re staying open!’” Feinberg says. “It makes me feel good that they feel that way about the store; kind of like Peyton Manning retiring after winning a Super Bowl, we are ending positively.”
The store first opened in 1998 by Paul Peters, who was actually a long-time friend of Feinberg’s at the time. Knowing Feinberg had interest of owning a store himself, Peters approached him in 2007 about buying it, and in October 2008, Feinberg was the official owner.
In fact, Feinberg admits one of his favorite memories of the store is his very first day; Peters’ last day was the day before Thanksgiving in 2008, and the store was closed for the holiday, so Feinberg, and his General Manager Will Bridge, were to open on Black Friday.
“We walked through the door, and I looked at Will, and was like ‘now what?’ He then told me that as the owner I had to unlock the door and turn on the open sign,” he reminisces.
Another moment that sticks out in Feinberg’s mind is when Lake Shore East reached out to him directly, asking if he wanted to expand to another location in 2012. Although the store was only open for two years, Feinberg enjoyed getting to design the store from scratch and put his own touch on it.
“While we made internal changes to this place, Paul’s style was awesome, and already gave it that unique, true running store environment,” Feinberg explains. “Designing and building your own store is so much fun, that’s definitely one of the best memories for me.”
Other notable accomplishments of Universal Sole includes turning the Burgers and Beer fun run into an official 5K in 2012, and the effort of bringing the charity of Back on My Feet, which helps raise awareness of homelessness, to Chicago.
“We’ve done a lot in 10 years … our racing team has grown too, and growth is always fun to see,” Feinberg says. “My daughter just turned 11, so she’s literally grown up with this store, and for that I am very grateful.”
Feinberg attributes much of the store’s success to his dedicated employees, and in particular, Bridge. Bridge was there on the first day of Feinberg’s ownership, and will be on the last.
“As a previous running store owner, he was always there with advice,” Feinberg adds. “I couldn’t have done anything without him.”
Overall, Feinberg feels bittersweet about closing the doors; obviously 10 years is a long time, and with all of the memories made, saying goodbye is definitely going to be hard next week. However, he knows in his heart it was time.
“I can’t point to one thing to blame for our closing, but obviously online is the gorilla in the room,” Feinberg says. “It allows that ‘at-home’ shopping experience … and to have the ability to compare styles and pricing is huge.”
Within any industry, competition is always a challenge, and when Fleet Feet opened its location in Roscoe Village, just blocks away from Universal Sole, Feinberg admits they took a hit. Other stores in the area are Road Runners and Lululemon, and people go where it’s most convenient, he says.
Feinberg also feels the closing is good timing for him personally; with a girlfriend and kids, he realized he needed to make a financial change to better support them.
“Even though you wouldn’t know it from the outpour of support these last two weeks, our customer base kept shrinking, so it’s time to move on,” Feinberg adds.
As he starts his new job at the Chicago Area Runner’s Association in October, staying in the running scene with a focus on marketing, Feinberg hopes that the running industry can stabilize, but also that small businesses see an increase in support.
“The hardest thing for me about all of this is that it’s the last independent running shop on the north side,” Feinberg says. “People need to realize that the small ma and pa shops are drying up quickly, and those are the places that have passionate owners, you can’t get that from a screen … Amazon isn’t part of our community.”
He encourages other small business owners to really look at where they get their capital, as he says that was the most difficult part of owning Universal Sole, and to get enough supporters. On the reverse side, Feinberg hopes that customers can show more support to their local stores before they’re all gone.
Thankfully, Universal Sole isn’t going away completely, as its big events, such as the trail runs, Burgers and Beer 5K, 4 Mile Classic and other races will still take place, under the name Universal Sole Running Events. Feinberg says they may even look to add an event or two next year.