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Remembering the beloved Eastbay shoe catalog

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Eastbay has sent out its last catalog. The parent company of the sportswear retailer is reorganizing and shutting down the brand. But in the '90s, Eastbay mail-order catalogs featured the hottest new athletic shoes and athletic wear. And NPR's Gus Contreras - dare we say it - a child of the '90s, has this appreciation.

GUS CONTRERAS, BYLINE: I used to spend hours and hours poring over the latest Eastbay catalogs. Like a detective combing through mounds of evidence, I'd closely examine the newest sneakers worn by my favorite athletes like Ken Griffey Jr. and Deion Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the shoe that Deion wears in the field. And now it's mine, all mine. And nobody can take it from me.

CONTRERAS: Before widespread online shopping, Eastbay was the place to check out the latest sneakers and sports apparel.

NICK DEPAULA: Eastbay was the first time that you could bring them all to your home. And it was Champs Sports with all the jerseys, Foot Locker with all the shoes, and pretty much, in about a hundred pages, you could see all of that right in front of you.

CONTRERAS: That's Nick DePaula. He covers the sneaker industry for ESPN. He's also a '90s kid who was obsessed with Eastbay.

DEPAULA: I always joke with people - and I literally was reading the sports page and Eastbay with my cereal every morning.

CONTRERAS: Never mind that neither of us had the money to afford those Nike sneakers or Starter jackets. We both basically memorized those catalogs, down to how much those shoes weighed in ounces.

DEPAULA: The level of detail that was kind of jampacked into every page was pretty extensive. It was a great sort of immediate database behind the guise of a selling catalog. And then, it was - you know, when you're 10 or 12 years old, you don't think of it in that way.

CONTRERAS: You might think of it more like a magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CLAYTON KERSHAW: You know, when that Eastbay magazine shows up, you start flipping through...

KEVIN DURANT: And you always was anxious to get the magazine and look through it.

LEBRON JAMES: And I seen Eastbay magazines, you know, when they came out. And it seemed like...

CONTRERAS: Baseball and basketball superstars Clayton Kershaw, Kevin Durant and LeBron James certainly did when they were kids, at least that's what they said in Eastbay promotional videos.

Eastbay, the company, was founded in 1980 by two guys selling running shoes out of a van in North Central Wisconsin. It grew into a national mail-order retailer and eventually was bought by Foot Locker in 1997. Most of the approximately 200 employees left at the company will be laid off by April, according to Foot Locker. Eastbay itself pivoted to online sales a while ago, but the internet has changed how sneakers are marketed and sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So here's the box - voila. I'm going to take them out for y'all. Bam.

CONTRERAS: Social media and apps can hype new shoe releases much quicker than a catalog can. And large shoe companies are increasingly selling direct to consumer without a retailer, which made it harder for brands like Eastbay. But it's not hard to remember that their reach was once everywhere.

DEPAULA: Before Instagram, before message boards, and - Eastbay itself was pretty much the anchor point of sneaker culture. Whether it's Jordan 11, Air Max 95, any Penny Hardaway shoe, you know, those models have been, for now three decades, sought after routinely. And there's a page on Eastbay you could find for each one of those.

CONTRERAS: ESPN's Nick DePaula thinks the catalog set him on a path to where he is with his career. And as I've worked on this story, I've realized that some of the styles that influence me to this day kind of comes from those catalogs, too; even if I never got a pair of the Deion Sanders Nike Air DT Max 96s from Eastbay.

Gus Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF E-40 SONG, "U AND DAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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