Franny and Jerry Weinstein were struggling to make a living selling auto parts during the great gas crisis of 1979 when the Nike swoosh changed everything.
The couple had tried peddling a few close-out-brand athletic shoes to help shore up their bottom line, and before long, the Weinsteins' Automotive City gave way to a sneaker nation.
"Nike and Adidas were exploding the whole industry," Franny Weinstein, 65, said. "Our sneakers starting doing better than the auto parts."
Now, the Weinsteins have made another momentous business decision, not driven by an international oil embargo, but by local competition and the Internet.
By May 1, the Weinsteins, who live in Haverford Township, plan to close their Ardmore store, Sneaky Pete's, where buying shoes was part business and a big part social encounter.
"People's buying habits have changed," Jerry Weinstein, 77, said. "Online shopping has made it a lot easier for people. They can buy everything at home rather than take time to come to the store."
The Weinsteins opened their first Sneaky Pete's athletic-shoe and apparel store at the site of their auto-parts business in the Olney section of Philadelphia. Over the next three decades, the enterprise grew to include five stores serving thousands of customers. Now the Weinsteins are down to just the Ardmore store.
The couple is closing up shop at time when competition from other stores and the Internet has taken a bite out of a business that made buying athletic gear about more than just a transaction, customers and employees say.
"It wasn't just 'Come in and give me a size nine,' " said Robert Cohen, who worked at the store for 30 years. "It was, 'How are the kids, who's sick, who's dating, and who's getting married.' "
Local league and school sports directors bought gear for their athletes at the store. In the days before the Internet, some leagues posted team rosters and game schedules in the Ardmore shop's front window, producing a constant parade of student athletes.
"It's going to leave a big void in the community," said Biff Sturla, director of the Lower Merion Soccer Club. "They've been around forever, and they take care of a lot of people's needs."
At the height of their business in the early 1980s, the Weinsteins operated stores in Olney, Wyncote, Overbrook Park, and Ardmore. They closed the Wyncote store 15 years ago, then opened another in Exton.
Former employee Susan Vernick called the Weinsteins' brand of shoe selling a "dying art."
"We sat you down. We fit you. We got the shoes," said Vernick, who went to school with Franny Weinstein.
The two were friends at Overbrook High School when Franny Weinstein worked in a Ladybug boutique as a teen. Weinstein went on to earn a degree in education from Temple University.
But when she discovered she didn't like teaching, she returned to retail. Through a mutual friend, she met her husband, who had sold jewelry and advertising.
They went into business together and founded Sneaky Pete's. The business was a hit, but eventually they found the expansion was too much to handle while raising their children, Jennifer and Peter. (The stores were named after him.)
The business encountered controversy after remarks attributed to Franny Weinstein in Philadelphia magazine were characterized as racist by six protesters who briefly picketed the store one day in 1995.
According to the article, Weinstein had remarked about not stocking specific kinds of sneakers popular among African American children because she feared break-ins and holdups, as had occurred in the Wyncote store.
Franny Weinstein denied the allegations of racism then and now.
The comments were misunderstood and taken out of context, said Weinstein, who added that Sneaky Pete's has long served and employed members of minority communities. The matter had no lasting effect on the business, she said. Sneaky Pete's is one of the few longtime businesses on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, where the likes of Ettinger's shoe store and Spritzler's menswear helped define the strip. Still, the shopping district is healthier than in past years, when it had more empty storefronts, said Louis V. Simeone, president of the nearby Merion Art & Repro Center.
Sneaky Pete's will soon join the ranks of Lancaster Avenue alumni. The Weinsteins plan to continue the silk-screening and embroidery part of their business, but haven't decided on a location.
"It's given us a lot of pleasure," Franny Weinstein said of their 35 years with Sneaky Pete's, "but it's time to call it a day."