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A Boston collector launches an online sneaker museum

Eleanor Rask

Rick Kosow surrounded by boxes of sneakers in the storage facility he calls “the vault.”

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Rick Kosow surrounded by boxes of sneakers in the storage facility he calls “the vault.”

The storage facility in Allston where Rick Kosow stores his sneakers — all 1,000 pairs — is simply known as “the vault.” Black shoe boxes, filled mostly with pairs of Nike Air Jordans, tower over the few visitors who are given a glimpse into the slightly claustrophobic, climate-controlled rooms.

The sneakers, some of which are valued at $5,000 or more, are an obsession for Kosow, as is his Sneaker Museum , a website (www.sneakermuseum.com) offering a virtual trip through his staggering collection. In addition to showing a portion of the collection, he hopes to educate viewers that sneakers are more than athletic wear, they are coveted works of art.

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The Sneaker Museum exists just online, with occasional pop-up events around the city. But entrepreneur Kosow and his team of sneaker aficionados dream of a brick and mortar space where the sneakers can be on permanent display.

“I feel like sneakers belong on a pedestal,” said Kosow, who has been collecting sneakers since the 1980s. “Things that are collected wind up in museums. It led me to this idea. I saw a footwear exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts that made me think that there should be something similar for sneakers.”

That 2007 MFA show, called “Walk This Way,” featured footwear ranging from Egyptian sandals to the Adidas shell-toe Superstars made famous by Run-DMC. There have also been sneaker-exclusive exhibitions in fine art museums, such as the 2006 show “Sneakers: Classics to Customs” in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, adding cache to the concept of sneakers as art.

The bulk of Kosow's still-growing collection is 800 pairs of Nike Air Jordans. The Air Jordan is seen by both sneaker enthusiasts and museum shoe curators as a revolutionary collaboration that heralded the beginnings of sneakers crossing over from an athletic necessity to a fashion staple.

Kosow displays his sneakers on his Sneaker Museum website. Among his collection are a pair of 1991 Air Jordans and Air Jordan III (pictured).

Sneaker Museum

Kosow displays his sneakers on his Sneaker Museum website. Among his collection is Air Jordan III (pictured).

Kosow, 50, never dreamed of creating a museum when he picked up his first pair of Jordans in 1985. He started his collecting career in the pre-Jordan era while still in high school in Weston. At the time he was buying Adidas, Puma, Nike, and the Converse sneakers like those worn by his heroes Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

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Sneakers were a way for the shy, awkward kid to stand out in gym class, a way to connect with others, or a way to initiate conversation with classmates.

“I think I was a somewhat isolated kid because I was a very good student,” Kosow said at the Sneaker Museum’s office in Allston. “I was a bit sheltered. This was something that took me out of that isolation. People would ask about the sneakers.”

It wasn’t just sneakers. Since he was a teen, he’s collected comic books, music memorabilia, superhero tchotchkes, animation cells, and, at one time, reptiles. It’s a family trait. His mother collects purses. There was an uncle who collected albums of Broadway shows, and an older brother who collected baseball cards.

Kosow retired in 2007 after working for his father’s real estate company (which specialized in building senior housing), as well as another family company that was sold to 3M, and his own concert promotion company. He wanted a new outlet. It was a meeting eight years ago with Jason Sinatra, a sneaker enthusiast (proper lingo: a sneakerhead), that sparked the idea for a museum. After bonding over the Celtics and footwear, Kosow invited Sinatra to see his collection. At the time, the sneakers were stored haphazardly at Kosow’s Boston condo.

A very colorful pair of Air Jordans.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

A very colorful pair of Air Jordans.

“It was a goldmine,” said Sinatra, a 30-year-old collector who confesses that Kosow’s collections dwarfs his. The former Niketown employee now serves as cofounder and collections director of the Sneaker Museum. “I told him that he really needed to do something with it. To me it felt like nirvana. I don’t really think he had a full idea of what he had.”

In the world of sneaker collecting, the Air Jordan is one of the most sought-after. But collecting itself has become a competitive, and sometimes violent, sport. Riots have broken out in Orlando, Detroit, and New York as sneaker fanatics try to get their hands on limited-release shoes. Kosow is trying to shift attention away from these incidents and onto the craftsmanship and design of the shoes.

Nike has now released 28 versions of the Air Jordan since its debut in 1985. It also reissues older Jordans several times a year (proper lingo: retroed) in limited quantities. These are issued in multiple colors, often in select stores, making them all the more collectible.

“A lot of people look at the Michael Jordan signing with Nike as the real beginning of sneaker culture,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The Bata has over 10,000 pairs of shoes dating back 4,500 years. “Part of that is that you had this brilliant athlete wearing highly visible sneakers that were a violation of NBA rules, creating this kind of mythology. He seemed to be a man doing his own thing and looking good doing it.”

Jordan violated NBA rules by wearing his red and black Nikes during his rookie season. The red-and-black-only color scheme was outlawed by NBA commissioner David Stern. (Sneakers are required to include the color white, a rule that still stands today.) Every time Jordan wore the sneakers during a game, he was fined $5,000 (Nike paid the fine). Nike quickly capitalized on the controversy with an advertisement. Later versions of the sneaker, with the required white, were subsequently produced.

The staff of the Sneaker Museum (from left): director Jason Sinatra, social media and blog manager Sandra Manzanares, collector Rick Kosow, creative director and curator Olivia Ives-Flores, and director of operations Marcus Johnson-Smith surrounded by some of Kosow’s 1,000 sneakers.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

The staff of the Sneaker Museum (from left): director Jason Sinatra, social media and blog manager Sandra Manzanares, collector Rick Kosow, creative director and curator Olivia Ives-Flores, and director of operations Marcus Johnson-Smith surrounded by some of Kosow’s 1,000 sneakers.

Kosow’s collection isn’t the largest. The ShoeZeum opened in Las Vegas last year with 2,500 pairs of Nikes. Before the ShoeZeum, the SneakerMuseum (not to be confused with the Sneaker Museum) opened in Germany in 2011 with rotating exhibitions rather than an emphasis on a large catalog of kicks.

According to Jay Gordon, co-owner of Bodega sneaker boutique in the Back Bay, these museums are on the forefront of promoting a new artform to the public.

“It really comes down to good design,” Gordon said. “A collection like [Kosow’s] is akin to studying the changing design of Mercedes over time. The best designers out there want to be working on sneakers. And now you have luxury brands like Louboutin jumping on this.”

Though Kosow, who grew up locally, is a dedicated Celtics fan, he couldn’t resist the allure of Jordan, even when the Chicago Bulls power forward scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA playoffs.

“When I realized I wasn’t going to make the NBA, I decided I’d go for style more than agility,” joked Kosow, who is under 6 feet and not exactly NBA material. “Even though I wasn’t destined for greatness, at least I would look really good.”

Unlike most sneaker collectors, Kosow never buys his sneakers on eBay. He had the foresight to buy his sneakers — and many other pieces of Jordan memorabilia — at stores and then stash them away. More than 90 percent of Kosow's sneakers have never been worn.

The boxes multiplied over the years, it wasn’t until he enlisted Sinatra to help him catalog all those sneakers that he began to figure their worth. Because demand for collectible sneakers ebbs and flows it’s difficult to put an exact value on his collection, but expert Jacques Slade puts Kosow’s collection at a minimum of $100,000, but likely closer to $300,000 or more.

A pair of 1991 Air Jordans in Kosow’s collection.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

A pair of 1991 Air Jordans in Kosow’s collection.

“Eight hundred pairs of unworn Jordans is a huge thing,” said Slade, who hosts a weekly videocast called This Week in Sneaks. “That’s at the top tier as far as collectors go. It’s really like wine. You have to be in the culture to know all the nuances, differences, and vintages.”

Once Kosow realized what he had, he hired a team to start building a website, which went live in early June. The idea is not only to showcase the shoes, but to put them in historical context by giving information on other key cultural events taking place the year the shoe was released. He hired Olivia Ives-Flores, a School of the Museum of Fine Arts graduate with bachelor degrees in fine art, art history, and entrepreneurism.

Using her curating experience, Ives-Flores hopes to make the collection a focus of art shows and parties. The Sneaker Museum has collaborated with the Future Boston Alliance to display the shoes at pop-up events in Boston, and sponsored a screening of the 1983 film “Style Wars” at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Kosow’s also hoping to loan out portions of the collection to other organizations to display. Kosow said he could easily see a portion of the collection on display at a museum such as the Institute of Contemporary Art.

“These things that were once considered utilitarian are now considered art,” he said. “What they were doing was so cutting edge. No one had ever seen these prices or this craftsmanship. You don’t realize the innovation in these things until you stop and take a close look. That’s what we’re hoping people will see.”

KOSOW’S FIRSTS AND FAVORITE

His first pair of Jordans

JORDAN III, 1988

Launched his collection.

His first pair of Nikes

NIKE CORTEZ, MID-1970S

“It was the first pair of Nikes with three colors. There was the red swoosh, and then a little blue in the heel. I thought it was the coolest thing when I saw it.”

Favorite pair of Jordans

JORDAN II

“It’s justareally elegant sneaker. It was made in Italy from a beautiful leather.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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