LAKEVIEW — After serving as the owner of Universal Sole for nine years and being involved with the independent running store since its inception two decades ago, Joel Feinberg announced on Friday he’d made the tough decision to close the shop’s doors at the end of the month.
“We have served this running community with our hearts and our passion, and we’ve loved every single minute of it,” Feinberg said in the video announcement posted on Universal Sole’s Facebook page. “We wish that there weren’t so many x-factors in trying to run a small business in the city of Chicago. But at this point, it’s time for us to close our retail doors.
“This is a very hard thing for me because we poured a lot into this, and we just couldn’t see any other way to keep going,” Feinberg continued. “We want to thank everybody for being a part of Universal Sole running store.”
Though Universal Sole will close as a retail location for running shoes, it will continue to host events like its popular fun runs and races under the name Universal Sole Running Events.
Feinberg said it’s hard to distill Universal Sole’s recent struggles into one simple explanation. Everything from the rise of online shoe shopping to an influx of box store and chain competitors contributed to an economic climate that is unfavorable to small, independently owned businesses.
“The industry itself has been flat to down the last three to four years,” Feinberg said. “Looking at the future, whatever growth I could capitalize on, all that profit would be eaten up by paying for high interest loans. And small banks, unfortunately, aren’t lending, either. Given that we are a business that is inventory rich, it provides a large overhead, and banks don’t like to see that.
“We were never in any financial difficulties. It’s just a question of, given the changes in the industry right now, is this the sort of business that can continue to support myself, my staff and all of our families?”
After weighing that question, the answer Feinberg came to was no.
“I’m not sour about it,” he said. “I’m not somebody who’s like, ‘I’m blaming it on this, or I’m blaming it on that.’ We have the same challenges that every other business has.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, though. To Feinberg, and to many members of the running community in Lakeview and Chicago as a whole, Universal Sole was more than just a shoe store. The shop boasted experienced and knowledgeable staff that took as much time as was necessary to fit customers and find the right running shoe for everyone who walked through the door.
Universal Sole employees Jesse Kleinjen (on treadmill) and Matt Frey (at camera) perform a gait analysis on each other as they test new shoes that came into the shop. [Provided/Joel Feinberg]
In addition to its retail role, Universal Sole was active in organizing events and partnering with charities for fundraisers and to spread awareness of various causes. The business started a handful of fun run series, including a Wednesdays Women Fun Run and a Bottle Share Fun Run where each participant would bring a bottle of craft beer to share at the end of a 3- or 4-mile loop.
Universal Sole also hosts multiple annual races and is actively involved in the Chicago Marathon by giving talks about running safety.
More than 1,000 runners start the 2016 Universal Sole Burgers & Beer 5K Run at Soldier Field, Universal Sole’s largest race. [Provided/Colin Boyle]
Between the friendly atmosphere in the shop and its events, Universal Sole had become a major part of the runner community in Lakeview. Feinberg said the response to his announcement of the store’s closure has been overwhelming.
“The response has been hugely positive and supportive,” he said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘We’re going to run your races and continue to support you that way.’ I’ll be honest, it’s been hard to hear. But I also feel like this is great because we’ve affected a lot of people in a positive way.”
Feinberg said he wanted to emphasize that while the closure is beyond sad for him, his staff and the community of customers they’ve built over 20 years, he isn’t bitter about having to make this decision. More than anything, he feels grateful for the time he did have with Universal Sole.
“I just want everyone to know I’m thankful for all the support we got over the many years, especially all the comments we’ve received in the past week or so since the announcement,” he said. “I’m still broken up about closing the store. This whole thing is sad, but we’re grateful for everybody who’s come through our doors and supported us and been a part of what we’ve done. We want to thank everybody.”