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Columbia store is staying in the race


Fourteen years after a jog around the track turned into a walk down the aisle, Jeff and Karen Cohen are still the proud owners of Feet First, a sneaker and athletic clothing store in Columbia.

The 2,000-square-foot shop in Wilde Lake Village Center has long been a landmark for local runners, an unofficial headquarters for their running club, Howard County Striders, and a growing part of the Cohens' life.

"People here are very athletic," Karen Cohen said. "And people that are running marathons or just exercising in general, they want the equipment to fit properly - which are your shoes."

Jeff Cohen bought the store from two Howard County Striders in 1985, a year before the couple wed. He was working for the Internal Revenue Service, she was a manager at a clothing store, and they wanted to start a business together.

They had met at a health club, through a mutual friend. They courted over jogs on the indoor track, and in 1986 they were married.

"I still have my [health club] membership card because it's where I met Jeff," Karen said. "It's very sentimental."

The two had always been casual athletes, volleying tennis balls, bouncing to aerobics and jogging. Her dream was to buy a clothing store, and "I wanted to buy something I can relate to," Jeff said.

Buying a sneaker store, with a dash of athletic attire, seemed like the perfect compromise.

Today, despite competition from The Mall in Columbia and Dick's Sporting Goods, the Cohens said their business is running strong. "As soon as the season starts in the spring, we're busy all the way through the marathon season in October," Jeff said.

Saturday is their busiest day, but the store is open seven days a week. Jeff estimates that sales have increased about 10 percent a year for the last 10 years, though he did not disclose annual sales figures. The Cohens estimate that about 70 percent of their business comes from sneaker sales and the other 30 percent from apparel and accessories.

A pair of running shoes can cost $69.95 to about $149.95, and running shorts start at about $20 a pair.

Seven part-time employees at Feet First come to work clad in sports attire. Although the store sells items other than running shoes - such as soccer, baseball and football cleats, tennis shoes, soccer balls, water bottles and sneaker fresheners - many of its customers are from Howard County Striders, a 1,000-member running club.

"Whenever I go in there, I see Striders," said Dickie George, president of the Striders and one in a family of four runners - including a daughter who worked at Feet First.

George said Striders shop at Feet First because it's runner-friendly: The business was started by two Striders, there's an area in the store with information on races and Striders events and the owners and employees know their product.

"Over the years," Jeff said, "we've become experts."

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