Words by: Tim Huebsch
Images by: Joel Clifton
A black megaphone rests on a sill in a condo used as an office, a few floors above the bustling street of Toronto’s King Street West neighbourhood. It rarely collects dust, and hasn’t sat in the same spot for long, showing wear from its countless appearances at local road races.
If you’re a runner in Toronto, you’ve likely heard of BlackToe Running, the run specialty store which has served tens of thousands of customers since late-2013. You’re equally as likely to have heard the voices from behind that same megaphone, although you may not know it came from Maya or Mike Anderson, BlackToe Running’s founders and owners.
Today, what serves as a hub for runners within Toronto’s busiest corridor, may have never been had fate run its course. Fortunately, the Anderson’s were dealing with a runner when bidding on the space, which moved the needle in their favour. Otherwise, a burger chain was in line to vacate those very walls at 95 Bathurst St.
In January 2013, Maya and Mike first conceived of the idea to open a running store, and began researching. Focus groups, formulating a business plan, talking with runners, finding a home for the store, and determining whether an independent store could survive filled their time. Two months later, In March, the two, with zero retail – but years of corporate – experience concluded it was viable; in fact, it was much needed in a city where runners crave new experiences. By November of the same year, BlackToe Running was open. A lot can change in eight months.
What never changed was their name despite split opinion. It’s a name that resonates with runners and strikes curiosity among everyone else.
In the early days, Mike worked all day – every day – in the store while Maya continued her career at IMAX, helping support the business and family financially. She worked at the store on evenings and weekends to bring the business to life. “Our 5.5-year journey is a series of moments,” Maya says. “Low, low, lows and high, high, highs.”
BlackToe Running is more than just a store. Community events that enhance local road races, like an evening with Kiwi marathoner Jake Robertson during the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon or a speaker series for the Divas Running Series, “designed to create a space for women to have uncomfortable yet critical discussions about women in sport,” intrigue and inspire.
Mike is the self-acclaimed event organizer. “I love to organize events that people enjoy,” he says. “I like to see people get excited about running, and help them interact with each other. And we’ve done a lot of that over the years. That’s probably why we’ve seen such a community build around the store.”
“From my perspective, I don’t actively try or have a mission to [necessarily] build community,” Mike says. Rather, he adds, it’s a result of a greater mission. “It’s about supporting as many individual runners as we can and to find opportunities to enhance their experience.”
It’s not just hosting events. Take any day of the week and visit BlackToe Running and you’ll too be inspired.
The moment you walk into the store you feel like a runner. From the bleacher and dashes of chain link fence to the row of the latest shoes that cover the store’s centrepiece, a concrete island topped with indented footprints. The decor is that of a runner’s dream. You feel welcome. You feel like you’re a part of something. And that’s what makes BlackToe Running special. It’s more than just selling shoes, apparel or accessories.
“Building relationships [with the people who come through the door] one at a time, you naturally become known in the community. You become the place to go and the place to chat. As much as we sell running gear, it’s about the conversations.”
That’s not to mention the staff themselves, all of who care deeply about the sport and who are runners themselves, ranging in ability from beginners to elites, and everything in between. From their detailed shoe fitting process, and a wide selection of footwear, staff ensure you have the best experience finding a product that works for you.
BlackToe Running’s presence continues to grow well outside their store’s walls. They have their own club, whose signature singlets can be seen in packs around the city and they back key grassroots races in Toronto during a time when road running is ruthlessly competitive. “We try to support the kinds of races that mean something [to runners] and which have a tie to the community,” Mike says.
This year alone, BlackToe Running is sponsoring the Bum Run, Divas Half-Marathon and 5K, Pride and Remembrance 5K, Shakespeare Runs the Night, and Tannenbaum 10K. Ask anyone in Toronto and they’ll echo the fact that these are integral events to the local running scene.
One trend you’ll notice with BlackToe Running in-store is that they’re always adding new product; experimenting, and not being complacent. The curious runner is attracted to the store (and online) to their niche products. BlackToe Running sells products like Maurten, Goodr, Stance, Endurance Tap, Roll Recovery, and the elusive Nike 4%, which resulted in lineups on shoe day. They were also one of the first retailers to sell Ciele outside of the Montreal region.
As an independent running store, the Andersons say the trick is to differentiate. By having specialty products, the Andersons are able to carry brands in which they believe, as well as offer value to runners. “We’re trying to give them stuff they can’t just go buy anywhere,” Mike says.
Back to the megaphone. It bears great meaning to the story of BlackToe Running. The Andersons’ impact on the community truly comes full circle and is felt by anyone who has stopped by their store, whether it’s to buy a product, learn about nutrition, or attend a drop-in run. More than anything, it shows they care. “The whole ‘knowing us’ has come from countless one-at-a-time relationships; you don’t get that at a larger retail store,” Maya says. “You don’t get that personalized experienced.”
That aspect of the business – customer interaction – never gets old. “Maybe it’s their 10th time in the store, and they’re hugging you because they saw us cheer them on in a race. You’ve been part of that journey; where they started as a beginner and now they feel that they’re in control of their running. And you know you were part of that.”