The first thing Nick Kaun will take note of -- upon meeting you -- are your shoes.
He’ll admit this. He doesn’t judge though. He just notices, that’s all. He’s too nice of guy -- too contemplative, too soft spoken -- to ever sum up a person’s character on merely footwear. Still, you can’t help to feel self-conscious. Particularly, if you -- on this Saturday morning in early November -- are wearing cheap, imitation leather slip-ons and he’s sporting brand spanking new Adidas Crazy 8’s.
“They’re like Kobe’s,” says Kaun. “You know, from back in the day.”
Kaun is standing just inside the front door at his Oconomowoc farmhouse. His hands are jammed in his pockets, and he’s looking down, tipping back and forth, heel to toe, heel to toe. “They’re a retro reproduction,” Kaun continues. “Kind of a zombie-style edition with a brain print on the sole.”
He’s been wearing them since Halloween, which was a few days earlier. “I thought it was fitting,” he says. “You know, because of the whole brain thing.”
It’s not always that easy, Kaun says, deciding on a shoe. Naturally, he’s like everyone else. He wakes in the morning, chooses clothes, then picks out shoes accordingly. “Still,” he says, “it can be difficult.”
Kaun momentarily quiets, kind of shifting about, before simply leading the way up a narrow staircase of creaking steps to a second floor hallway. He opens a door to what seems to be a large closet or small bedroom - it’s hard to tell. The room is packed with sneakers -- all in boxes, all in teetering stacks, from floor to ceiling, three to four deep. There’s every brand imaginable - Nike, New Balance, Converse -- and appear like inventory for a shoe store that only sells Mens 9 1/2s.
“I might decide on a pair,” he says, “and go look for it. And, I’ll look and look. Usually I just end up going, ‘Screw it, what’s plan B.’”
The room has space for only one person and Kaun shimmies in, sideways. He spins slowly, head tilted up, a hand brushing across the boxes, as if stuck down in a canyon bottom and searching for a foothold out. “I used to have some organization,” says Kaun. “But that sort of deteriorated.”
He shakes his head. “It’s funny, but I never thought things were getting out of hand until only recently,” he says. “I was in here and it hit me. I was like, ‘Wow…’”
Kaun seems truly bewildered, as if the shoes accumulated like a surprise snowfall. It all began back in college, he says, “when I wanted a basketball shoe in every color.”
The collection evolved from there -- Kaun is vague on the progression. He’ll say that he was soon on the “thrill of the hunt” for the newest and hottest sneaker. He found himself camping out in lines in cities across the U.S. -- Seattle, Vegas, New York -- for exclusive releases.
Today, at age 37, Kaun doesn’t like crowds anymore. Or even shopping, for that matter. He buys his shoes now over the Internet. In fact, his latest purchase -- a pair of Adidas Superstars -- arrived in the mail only the day before.
The Superstars are out in the hallway, making them easy to find, which is good. Searching among the collection -- sliding out a box here and there - can easily cause a stack or two to topple over. When this happens, Kaun stiffens at the shoulders, bracing for more to fall, as if in a life-size game of Jenga. “Luckily,” he says,” I’ve never been completely buried in here.”
The shoes aren’t just for show, Kaun says. (In fact, he rarely ever shows them to anyone). He tries to wear each pair. “Unfortunately,” he says, “I work in the trades and spend most days in work boots.”
Kaun has even begun selling a few of his own pairs online. He’s also been donating to Soles for Jesus, a charity that he’s involved with, which collects and delivers shoes to those without in Africa.
So, there’s a limit to his shoe collection? “A limit?” Kaun repeats softly. “I think I already passed it.”