Style & Shopping

At 9/10 Sneaker Boutique, Sneakerheads Shop High Fashion High-Tops

Five years ago, Roberto “Berto” Fontanez decided he had enough of corporate retail.
—Photography by Tyrone Syranno Wilkens

Kamala Harris’ nephew-in-law gets photographed at the inauguration wearing Dior Air Jordans that retailed for $2,000, but are reselling for $10,000 on the secondary market,” says Roberto “Berto” Fontanez. He pulls one from the shelf at his storefront, 9/10 Sneaker Boutique, in South Baltimore. “If you can find them,” he adds, pausing and smiling. “They’re limited edition. Demand increases. That’s my business model.”

Fontanez lifts another shoe, a colorful, $2,800 LeBron James-inspired “What the MVP” high-top from the shelf and explains how the secondary market works for special-edition shoes like Air Jordans and Yeezys—Kanye West’s popular Adidas collaboration. Essentially, it goes like this: Someone gets their hands on still-in-the-box, super-fashionable sneakers, which they’ve purchased after winning a virtual raffle (nobody camps out in line anymore when shoes drop) or acquired through other fortunate circumstances. Then, they bring them to 9/10 for resale. On rare occasion, a relative of one of the city’s NBA stars or an area DI college ballplayer drops by with in-demand shoes to turn around a quick buck.

Buyers and sellers can post or find sneakers on Instagram or eBay. It’s just more fun to come to 9/10. On the television, there’s a steady loop of ’90s videos from artists like Nas and DMX, there’s a legit mini-Michael Jordan museum in the window, and along one wall, there’s a lineup of retro video games, the epic Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, among them.

With the back-and-forth conversation, braggadocio, and trash talk—“I sold those shoes to that dude and I don’t even work here”—the vibe is more corner barbershop than Dick’s Sporting Goods. In fact, there is a leather barber’s chair here. It’s used, like an old shoe-shining chair, for a fast, professional sneaker clean. (Shoes can also be dropped off for reconditioning.)

Ravens and Orioles have shopped here, but sneakerheads come from everywhere. “China, Brazil, Australia—they’re visiting Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, they follow us on Instagram and stop by,” Fontanez explains.

If it’s not clear, yet, these basketball shoes are not for playing basketball. They’re for a date, a party, prom, or simply a post to Instagram. The only real time a problem arises is when a kid drags in his mother, whom he hasn’t informed, naturally, that this isn’t a regular mall shoe store. Mom gets a look at the prices—most range between $200-400 and others more than $1,000—and freaks out.

The origin story of 9/10, whose name riffs on would-be sellers hyping the condition of shoes they want to sell—“9/10” unofficially means worn a max of five times—begins with Fontanez and his mother. He was born in 1980 in Chicago and well, do the math, Jordan had led the Bulls to six NBA titles and launched a cultural revolution with Nike by the time he graduated high school.

Fontanez’s parents, both Puerto Rico natives, worked two jobs, and along with his siblings, he got one pair of new shoes each year. Except in ninth grade, when his pleading convinced his mother to buy him Nike’s new Diamond Turfs that year, thus setting a life course in motion. At 19, he began working at the sporting goods store Finish Line.

Five years ago, after moving to Baltimore and managing several of their local stores, Fontanez decided he’d had enough of the corporate world. He went out on his own, initially opening in a tiny space in downtown Towson. Then, he relocated to Pigtown and finally, Light Street.

“I was nervous about moving to the city into a bigger space,” Fontanez says. “My partner quit right before we opened in Towson and stayed with Finish Line. I was married with three kids.”

He soon received a sign that eased his anxiety, however. Shortly after opening in Pigtown, someone cleaning out a nearby home asked if he bought memorabilia. Fontanez told him he did not. The guy described the Michael Jordan poster he’d found anyhow. “I had a lot of Jordan memorablia, but I didn’t have the ‘Jordan Wings’ poster, a horizontal poster that is two-feet tall and six-feet wide. Framed originals today go for a $1,000 or more. That’s the one he’d found.

“That poster was in my dentist’s office in Chicago when I was in school, and I’d stared at it for hours over the years,” Fontanez continues. “The guy who randomly brought it in? He didn’t know what it was worth. He asked for $20. I gave a $100 and had to force him to take it. It’s in the window.”