WESTERN SPRINGS – With its wooden walls and yellow-tinted lights, the storage room at The Competitive Foot still feels like the '70s, when a pair of running shoes was a pair of running shoes – not a piece of sophisticated technology born in a shoe-making laboratory.
The first brand Tim Eggert carried when he opened his store in 1974 was adidas, whose running shoes were immensely popular following the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Over the years, the brand dropped to eighth or ninth in prominence at Eggert's store, which will close at the end of the month after nearly 40 years at 814 Hillgrove Ave. Eggert says his Western Springs store was the first athletic shoe store in Illinois. Since 1974, Eggert and the store have witnessed the shift of an industry that was just forming when The Competitive Foot opened.
"[There was] a total lack of technology,” Eggert, 64, said while sitting at the old steel desk in the back of his store. “Some of the adidas shoes with spikes or for track, they were $29.99 or $39.99. In hindsight, they had nothing to them."
Today, finding a good running shoe for less than $100 is rare, if impossible. There are far more brands than shoelace holes, and the development of better, lighter or more specialized shoes seems never-ending.
"Now, it's overdone,” Eggert said. “I think it's overdone. It's still a shoe. It's gotta be good. It's got to perform. If it does, there you go."
It was with that black-and-white, treat–the-customer-right approach that Eggert built up his store.
"The store always had a nice clean, crisp appearance to it," said Len Caldeira, a former village trustee who founded the Tower Trot with the help of donations from Eggert.
Eggert opened the store not long after graduating from Southern Illinois University. Initially, he thought he wanted to “run around on LaSalle Street,” so he took a job as a financial analyst. It didn’t last long.
“Totally disillusioned,” Eggert said of his experience at the job.
He’d always played and loved sports, so he thought an athletic shoe store would merge his interests with his business background. After opening his store on Hillgrove Avenue, he employed, literally, any family member who could help. One would work a weekend; another a weeknight. At first, Eggert kept his job downtown to finance the new store.
“I used to get off the train and get out of my suit and tie and come here and work,” he said.
Eggert’s mom, wife, kids, sister-in-law and other family members all worked at the store. He employed non-family members, too, and working with his staff was one of the most rewarding parts of running the business.
"Hiring people, young or old, training them, getting them to be responsible, getting them to care about the business, growing within,” he said. “And now a lot of them have left and gone on to do great things, and [they] come back all the time. So I'm proud. We've been very, very fortunate with our quality of help."
Eggert was always keen to changes in gear – and in his customers. As running shoes have become more particular, so have runners, he said.
"It always struck me that Tim was very aware of trends, very aware of the type of shoe and the type of clothing that would be popular with runners," said Caldeira, an avid runner. "For an individual store, I was struck by how leading-edge he always seemed to be."
The store will continue to sponsor the Tower Trot, keeping one foot in Western Springs as Eggert focuses on his Oak Park location. Semi-retirement, Eggert calls it.
The store recently cut ties with adidas, its first brand, which was making demands Eggert didn't want to agree to. Caldeira calls him "a solid businessman," but one who sold something he truly liked.
"It started out to just be a high-quality hobby, and it ended up being a career," Eggert said.