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Original Issue


Once, long ago, they were the humblest of shoes and, except when their wearers were kids, usually lay forgotten for much of the year in the back of a closet. The soles were worn smooth, the canvas uppers torn and stained, the laces knotted and frayed. Sometimes they gave off an unpleasant odor, a reminder of hours spent pounding across gym floors, squishing through damp grass, slogging along beaches. Back then, they were shoes worn when you didn't want to ruin a good pair. After all, they were only sneakers.

Today, they are SNEAKERS! At least that is what some people call them, whether they are running shoes or tennis shoes or basketball shoes, whether worn by executives, joggers, housewives, kids or pro athletes. They have now reached the apex of public recognition with two new paperbacks devoted to the subject: Sneakers by Samuel Americus Walker (Workman, $3.95) and The Super Sneaker Book by Caroline A. Zimmermann (Double-day Dolphin, $5.95). The Zimmermann book is a rather tedious compilation of prices, promotional pictures and heavy-humor features (including leaden letters to and from an Aunt Sneaker), but Samuel Americus Walker's work offers an amusing hour or so to those addicted to the sporty footwear.

Sneakers serves up a cornucopia of canvas-shoe lore. There's a chronology that includes such important dates as 1873 (the year the term "sneaker" first appeared in print), 1915 (the Navy orders the first GI pairs) and 1929 (Spalding introduces the arch cushion). There's also a diagram of a rubber tree, a quickie biography of Charles Goodyear and a photographic tour of a sneaker factory. Sneakers even has a chapter on baking a cake in the form of a pair of sneakers.

Trivia experts will enjoy the long list of sneaker synonyms—gumshoes, gym shoes, plimsolls, perpetrator boots, tractor treads—and can test their trivial powers by means of a quiz that asks how many brands the reader can identify from photographs of treads.

Other Sneakers gleanings: Did you know that 14 is the average size in the NBA? Are you aware that the original rubber-sole wearers were Amazon natives who dipped their feet in bowls of liquid latex, which they then hardened by toasting their feet in front of a fire? Finally, did you know that in 1950 sneakers accounted for only 5% of U.S. shoe sales while today they have 50% of the market? Does this give you a clue to why there are now books on this once humble subject?