If you grew up in Worcester in the 1980s and ’90s, then certainly you could quickly muster a long list of businesses which existed when you were a kid that are no longer open.
Maybe your list looks something like this: Caldor, Worcester Common Fashion Outlets, Discovery Zone, Abdow’s Big Boy, Dream Machine, The Ground Round, Maurice the Pants Man, Charlie’s Surplus, Spag’s.
One could go on and on.
While all these places have come and gone over the past 40 years, there’s at least one small family-owned business from your childhood that survived — with no end in sight.
The slogan for Sneakerama is “For the Long Run,” and does it ever live by those words.
On Thursday, June 2, Sneakerama and its owner, Steve Genatossio, celebrated the store’s 38th year in the athletic shoe business with a block party following the weekly Thursday night “Fun Run.”
“We had a ball. It was a great night. It was beautiful weather,” Genatossio said of the party that hosted 100 people and featured live music and free food.
Events like the weekly themed group fun runs and sponsoring of road races, including the upcoming 16th annual Worcester Firefighters 6K on June 12, has helped create a community of runners at the small sneaker store on Lake Avenue.
“I read somewhere that a successful business in America is something that lasts 20 years,” Genatossio said. “If you think about everything that changed in the last 20 years — video stores, small electronic stores, drive-in theaters — many of them haven’t survived.
“Going on to 40 years now, we’re going to keep changing and adjusting to times and hopefully stay current in what we do,” he added. “We want to stay feasible. That’s all you can do. I’m going to try to keep it going as long as I can.”
For the past 16 years, Sneakerama has made its home at 12 Lake Ave., and Genatossio says the area makes all the difference.
“It’s a great location. It’s a great vibe. You have UMass Medical Center with a lot of young people. When you’re in a community like that, it makes a difference. There’s Lake Park down the street with baseball, football, and eight tennis courts. We’ve got crew races at the Regatta across the street. It’s such a nice place to do business. It really is,” Genatossio said.
Genatossio, 56, was one of four children born to Helen and Louis “Lou” Genatossio on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester. He grew up across the bridge in Shrewsbury.
Sneakerama, which opened in 1978, was the brainchild of Louis Genatossio, coming to him as he daydreamed over a shovel working a summer construction job.
Lou owned and operated Genatossio Oil and Ice on Shrewsbury Street. Following the widespread adoption of refrigeration — which put an end to Lou’s summer ice deliveries — he had to find some other kind of work to do during the summer months.
It was while working construction that Lou noticed kids — especially son Steve and his friends — were wearing sneakers every day, and all summer long.
“He always wanted to do something a little different — maybe open an ice cream stand, or something like that,” Genatossio said. “But when he saw all of these kids wearing sneakers all of the time, he said, ‘How about I open up a sneaker place?’
“At that time, to own a store that only sold athletic shoes was unheard of. It was the days of Thom McAn. The regular shoe stores would have few options — maybe a pair of Converse or a pair of Keds.”
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Lou opened up Sneakerama in a tiny store in Webster Square “about the size of a Chevy Suburban,” Genatossio said. He opened in the spring of 1978, with plans to close the store for the season in the fall.
Genatossio said, “People told us, ‘Why don’t you stay open until basketball season?’ And then they said, ‘Why don’t you stay open until Christmas?’ And we were going to close after Christmas, but we said, what the heck — it’s only a few more months and the rent was cheap, let’s just keep it open.
“Things just kind of exploded after that,” Genatossio said. “The ’80s came and people were running. Sports were getting big. We were very lucky.”
Genatossio graduated from Shrewsbury High School and Boston State College, now the University of Massachusetts Boston.
After graduating from college, Genatossio got a job at Reebok. He lasted only six months because he realized he already had what everyone else wanted.
“I realized I was working with a bunch of guys at Reebok and their dream was to open up their own athletic shoe store. And I said to myself, ‘This is what I already have with my dad,’ ” Genatossio said.
Lou Genatossio still saw the store as a summer job and emphasized selling shoes for the summer. Steve said he would come back to work, but the store would have to expand.
“We needed to make it a lot bigger and put in a bigger commitment. And my dad said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
Following a fire at the Webster Square store, the family moved Sneakerama to Park Avenue just a few months later, around Thanksgiving.
As business grew in their new location, Steve found that their new store was already too small.
In 1999, Lou Genatossio retired from the sneaker business, and a year later, Steve Genatossio purchased a building at 12 Lake Ave., and has been running the business there since.
Lou died in June 2013.
Nowadays, Steve Genatossio relies on his wife and kids to help him run the store. Genatossio’s wife, Lisa, is the bookkeeper for the business, and his daughter, Vanessa (Genatossio) Whalen, is the manager.
Steve’s other daughter, Nina, lives in Los Angeles, and his son, Jackson, who also works at Sneakerama, is a student at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury.
Whalen, 26, who has worked at Sneakerama for the past 15 years, said, “One of the best parts about working here is getting to work with my family. It’s a nice atmosphere and everyone here really cares about each other. When you have a long day, it’s nice to be able to go out with your family afterwards and forget about work.”
Sneakerama boasts what it calls the “largest selection of styles and sizes to satisfy any active footwear need.” However, according to Genatossio, it’s a combination of discounted prices and employee experience that separates Sneakerama from its competitors.
“You can’t be ‘suggested retail’ in Worcester. You have to be a discount store. I know I’m going to have better prices than other people around town,” he said.
Additionally, Genatossio said, “You have to really put the time in to hire the right employees. When we look at our business, we look at our employees as such an important part of our business. We’ve always had great employees, but we’ve never had better employees than we do right now.”
Sneakerama employs staff members like Central Mass. Striders running coach Barbara McManus of Worcester, who has won seven marathons and has competed in races around the world, including Canada, Ireland and South Korea.
Then there’s Worcester’s Patricia Clark, 56, who has run 78 marathons and didn’t start running until the age of 40. She’s also the mother of eight children.
Assistant store manager Matt Germain recently finished third in the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine.
“When you have employees that are also successful runners, that’s gives you credibility. That really helps you,” Genatossio said.
In the end, what it really comes down to for Sneakerama, said Genatossio, is the customers.
“I owe a lot to all of my wonderful customers. I literally have two to three generations of family coming to the store,” he said. “That makes me feel old, but it makes me feel good.”
Sneakerama is located at 12 Lake Ave. in Worcester. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Fridays; 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m Sundays. For more information, visit sneakerama.com or call 508-799-7278.
This article was originally published in the June 5, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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