Yvonne Abraham

Shoestring success

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2010

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It’s an old, familiar story.

Mom and pop store opens, builds loyal following over the years. Then big, fat chain moves in right next door. Mom and pop struggle. Locals lament generification of neighborhood, then flock to chain. Mom and pop give it up.

Yeah, that didn’t happen here.

Alpha & Omega, a sneaker store in Dudley Square, was buzzing on a recent afternoon. Salesmen were showing a couple of customers the new styles. Up front, store owner Sop Kim, a gray-haired 67-year-old, was on the phone with his doctor, who was calling to make sure he takes a vacation soon.

Wordlessly, Sop Kim shoved the handset at his daughter, Kathy.

“Oh sure!’’ she kidded with the doctor, laughing. “Yeah, he’ll go on vacation!’’

Sop Kim doesn’t do vacations well. He’s sat by the cash register in this store six days a week for 30 years, and it’s hard to imagine anything budging him.

He didn’t leave in the difficult early years, when people were breaking into his store and smashing his windows — he just slept in the store. He didn’t leave the time a crowd of youths seemed bent on looting his wares. (He just held his gun aloft — “Just pretend!’’ he explained, adding that he does have a license — and they stopped in their tracks.)

And he certainly didn’t leave when a Foot Locker opened up next door more than a decade ago.

Nor did his customers leave him.

First of all, there aren’t a lot of sneaker stores around with Alpha & Omega’s selection. Kathy Kim estimates that they have between 500 and 700 styles in stock at any one time.

Second, if you’re interested in old-school sneakers, this is your place. Kathy Kim says no self-respecting resident of Roxbury or Mattapan would be seen in public without Adidas on his feet — white Top Tens with blue and red trim, preferably.

“If you’re not wearing Adidas, you’re not from Boston,’’ she said.

Third, nobody else has Mr. Kim.

He has poured himself into selling shoes since shortly after he migrated from Korea in 1969 with $4.25 in his pocket. He worked nights at a Lawrence poultry plant to save enough to buy his current store — and the building it’s in.

Because of that, he has low overhead. He can afford to give spot discounts, and free socks and hats to loyal customers.

His store has become a local tradition spanning generations.

“I know them from little kids,’’ he said of his customers. “You know, even though my face is Oriental, I feel like I’m born over here.’’

And Kim has become part of the fabric of Dudley Square. Every New Year’s Eve, he puts on a nice suit and pays calls on the other merchants in the neighborhood.

“I say ‘Good Luck, God bless you,’ ’’ he said. “I never miss one year.’’

It’s hard for a chain to match all of that. But the Kims say Alpha & Omega still has plenty of competition. Customers are struggling in the down economy, and vitality-sucking eyesores like the abandoned Ferdinand Building persist despite the determined talk of city officials.

“Our biggest competition is the lack of human and other development down here,’’ Kathy Kim said.

Alpha & Omega will gut it out, as it always has.

Ask Sop Kim if he ever thinks of retiring, and he will furrow his deeply lined brow and look at you like your head is full of shoelaces.

“Huh?’’ he said. “I’m not thinking about it. After you retire, you’re getting sick, getting lazy.’’

Besides, did you notice the name of the store?

“My wife picked up that name from the Bible,’’ he said. “It means beginning and end. It means forever. This store is forever here.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at