410 Central Ave.
Suraj Kaufman is the Imelda Marcos of sneakers. The former First Lady of the Philippines reportedly owned 3,000 pairs of shoes, though she claimed it was closer to 1,000.
Whatever, this kid from the JC hood claims that at one point he had about 30 pairs of sneakers. But when he was growing up in the projects in the Marion section of town, he couldn’t afford sneakers.
Asked about his current title, he says, “Founder, Owner, Everything” of the Sneaker Room.
Here’s the origin story:
He opened his first store on Brunswick Street in 2006, a tiny 350-square-foot operation that tanked after two years. “There wasn’t a lot of profit,” he says. “I was buying sneakers for $150 and selling them for $200.”
After that, he says, “I worked for someone else at a sneaker store and learned the ins and outs of the business aspect of it.”
In 2010, he opened a store with a partner in Montclair. “My partner and I had different opinions,” he says, “and we split up.” The partner stayed in the Montclair store, and Suraj opened a store at 267 Central Ave.
He soon outgrew that one and opened the current 3,000-square-foot space at 410 Central Ave.
Suraj’s mother died of colon cancer in 2006. When she died, she left him one framed piece of Nike stock inscribed, “To Suraj, a piece of Nike you won’t wear out. Love, Mom.”
When his mother was dying at home, she told him, “The hospice took over your sneaker room.” By that time he’d acquired those 30 pairs of sneakers. That’s how his store got its name.
Suraj was shaped by his mother’s community spirit. When she died, he says, she was remembered “as a member of the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Rosary Society and a dedicated volunteer of 28 years.”
“I love the sneaker store,” he says, “but it’s the philanthropy and charity aspect that’s the most important part. Anybody can open a successful business, but giving back is the real heart and accomplishment.”
He’s donated to holiday toy drives, the Boys and Girls Club, turkey drives, breast cancer awareness, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and hosted events for the local community. He’s wrangled celebrities, such as Jadakiss, Jim Jones, Victor Cruz, and Justin Tuck to make appearances. The Giants Steve Weatherford bought back-to-school sneakers for kids.
Suraj’s youngest son raised $2,500 for charity with a lemonade stand.
The Sneaker Room partners with Bambino Chef (see page TK) to make and deliver sandwiches to homeless shelters.
“At Thanksgiving, I help make and serve the meals,” Suraj says, emphasizing that he doesn’t want to just donate; he wants to “serve the people.”
He speaks at careers days, using himself as an example: He didn’t go to college, but he also didn’t give up.
Suraj has become successful enough to move to the suburbs. One day, he was reflecting on his sprinkler system, recalling that when he was a kid they “opened a fire hydrant in the projects.”
“I’m not trying to leave a business,” he says. “I’m trying to leave a legacy. You’re judged by what you give back and how you touch people’s lives.”