When Anthony “T.J.” Bennett was an undergraduate at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, he took a job in a sneaker store. “In a small town like Troy, it’s hard to find a cool job, but this was a cool job,” Bennett recalled. While he enjoyed helping other young people choose the right athletic shoes, he hardly envisioned the part-time job taken to help meet school expenses as a springboard to entrepreneurship.
At the store in Troy, Bennett had conversations with a co-worker who told him of his dreams to own his own store in the Atlanta area. “I really didn’t know whether he was serious, but years later when I was out of school and working at a corporate job, he called to ask if I was interested in coming to work with him as a manager. While the position itself was something I had dreamed of, it’s tough to give up the safety, the resources, and the benefits of a corporate job to work at a small independent company,” he said.
“I asked how much he could pay me and the figure he cited was barely within the acceptable range, but I loved the independence, the flexibility, and the opportunity to help build a business that not only involved merchandise that I liked, but had as a primary goal helping young people,” Bennett continued.
The first Sole Play retail store opened in Lawrenceville in 2014 with a business model that included not only selling athletic footwear and clothing but providing opportunities for young people to improve the quality of their lives. “While we’re a business, created to make a profit, we also have a nonprofit component with three key areas in which we work to help young people: mental stability, financial literacy, and STEM [science, technology, electronics, and mathematics]. The store is for everybody, but we are especially interested in attracting young Black men, who may need help in these areas more than others do.”
In addition to a retail showroom, the store has a snack area and an area for playing video games. “We learned that 96 percent of young African Americans play video games, but only 4 percent of those involved in the industry are African Americans. We want to change this.
We want to teach young people the skills they need to design and market the games they already love playing,” Bennett said. “As far as I know, this is a unique business model. There may be others doing something similar, but I don’t think anyone has a business exactly like this.”
At the same time, Bennett said, the retail side of Sole Play is in a soaring industry. “We offer the same fashion-forward merchandise you’ll find in New York and L.A.,” he noted.
The concept proved such a success, that Bennett soon became a co-owner and president of the company. He and his partner started looking for a second location. “We knew we wanted to be close enough to Atlanta to be convenient to young people living in Atlanta, but we didn’t want to be inside the city. When we visited Decatur, we knew we had found something special,” Bennett said. The Decatur store opened in the summer of 2022.
“The business community was helpful and super welcoming,” said Bennett, who hosted the Decatur Business Association’s March meeting at the Sole Play on East Ponce de Leon across from the Courthouse Square. “There is an energy and a vibe here that matches ours.”
Bennett said Sole Play is an authorized seller of some of the top manufacturers of athleticwear and deals directly with them. “We’ve invited executives with these companies to visit our Decatur store and they have been as impressed with Decatur as we were. They never knew this very special city existed.”
The next step for Sole Play, according to Bennett, is to build the nonprofit side through sponsorships so that it is no longer necessary to charge for use of the video game machines or the area for use by community organizations.