Location, Location, Location
“We’re moving,” reads a massive sign in the storefront window at 7516 Leesburg Pike near Tysons Corner.
To the passerby headed to do some grocery shopping, it may seem like any other storefront. But this location, home of one of the the longest continuous-running specialty running stores in the D.C. area, has held a special place in the running community since 1991. That’s not to say it hasn’t changed over the years–it began as Fleet Feet Sports, then Metro Run and Walk and, finally, Potomac River Running.
It all started with Lea Gallardo, who opened the store as Fleet Feet Sports.
She describes that Lea, the new Fleet Feet owner 26 years ago, as “the slowest runner in Northern Virginia.” Yet she had been involved with the Reston Runners, Reston Triathlon and Reston Bike Club since the ’80s.
“I had a very entrepreneurial spirit and when an existing Fleet Feet in Reston came up for sale in 1990, I negotiated to buy it,” she said. “That didn’t work out, but it put me in touch with the Fleet Feet franchise company and that’s where that connection came from.”
In 2001, Gallardo’s 10-year contract with Fleet Feet expired and she changed the name to Metro Run and Walk, partly in an effort to appeal to a broader market.
“The big change in running had begun in the mid ’90s,” she said. “It wasn’t just for young, skinny guys anymore. Thanks to the new charity events, everyone could participate in running. And then, many folks, including myself, began to see the extreme benefits in walking. In changing the name, we needed to embrace everyone. I also wanted a universal type name because I knew my brother was thinking about opening [a franchise] in South Bend, Ind.”
Chris Kelly has been with the store for most of its journey. “I was actually the first paying customer in 1991,” he said. “They had very personalized service. I became a customer for life. And when I retired from my full-time job, I told Lea that I wanted to work in her store.”
Kelly has worked there for the last 15 years and has become an integral part of the store.
“We like to say he came with the store,” said Derek Holdsworth, a colleague of Kelly’s at Potomac River Running.
Before working with Gallardo, Kelly was a software developer who worked on Wall Street, at the Pentagon and in downtown D.C. “It was really fast paced, exciting,” he recalls. “The thing I liked most about [those jobs] was if you failed, they fired you, when you succeed, they pay you well.”
“Having that type of stress was tailor-made for running. I can’t tell you how many times we’d be sitting at our desks at 3 a.m. downtown and we had to get our systems up,” he recalls. “And someone would say, ‘Hey, let’s go for a run!’ and most times, the solution would come right to us.”
Kelly ended his career in software development in 2000 but did not seek out a new job right away. “I waited a little over a year. I was very young. I was 54. I was paid very well and I just didn’t feel like jumping into [a new job].”
Kelly started working for Metro Run and Walk in February of 2002 and found it easy to transition into another performance-based work environment.
“That same type of attitude was a perfect fit for working with Metro Run and Walk because the whole idea was: get the person the right shoe for them. Don’t oversell, make sure to get the right shoe and really dwell on that,” he said. “It was an easy transition for me to do that.”
In an age when running specialty stores were in short supply, Metro Run and Walk was a hot destination for those seeking quality running gear.
“Anyone who wanted to go to a running specialty store anywhere from Winchester [to D.C.] had to drive all the way in,” recalls Ray Pugsley, co-owner of Potomac River Running. “It was so crowded. It was like a deli. People had to pick a number and wait their turn.”
“Supposedly we were the fourth largest running store in the country,” Kelly said. “Part of that idea was you stayed with your customer from start to finish. That was what Lea wanted us all to do … On a Saturday, the most I ever counted was 30 people waiting in line to get their gait analyzed. We had eight to nine people on staff at a time.” Today the store normally schedules two or three staff members at a time.
“As with all success, what happened then was there were a lot more running stores. Pacers, and others, all started taking a part of the pie,” Kelly said. “Success breeds other people wanting a piece of the action.”
Potomac River Running, founded in 2003, was one of those other stores.
“[Potomac River Running] ended up there because we purchased Metro Run and Walk from Lea Gallardo,” Pugsley said. “She approached us sometime in early 2009. She was ready to retire and move on and she was hoping to keep the store going … She wanted to see that it continues. She didn’t want it to just shut down … Based on our [company’s] geography and our existing business, she thought we could represent that space well. We bought the store in June 2009.”
Pugsley was excited to include the store as part of his company. “Certainly that location was historically a great location because it’s right in between the Beltway and 66 and Route 7,” he said. “On paper, it’s a really good location. We were really excited to be in that spot that has such a history.”
Shortly after moving in, Pugsley renovated the space. “We redid the store and modernized it,” he explains. “The counter used to be in the middle of the store. Then we redid the store and moved the counter where it is [near the entrance]. And the treadmills used to be in the middle of the store and they’re not in the middle of the store now.”
It’s been that way ever since.
Kelly says it was easy to make the transition from working with Gallardo to working with Pugsley. “Now Potomac River Running is a wonderful place to work,” he said. He is especially fond of the company’s name. “I always thought it was appropriate for me to work there because I’ve always been running on the C&O Canal by the river for the past 26 years. I’ve been with these guys now for about the past seven and a half years.”
Having worked in running specialty for the past 15 years, Kelly has noticed some significant changes in the type of customer who comes through the door.
“I think that’s the biggest change I’ve noticed over time across the running store career is that now the runners are the minority for our customers,” he explains. “I would say 15 years ago, 99.9% [of customers] were runners. And then over time, Lea [renamed it] Metro Run and Walk.”
He says the simple name change helped bring in new clientele. “We had a lot of women who walked. It was incredible. And they spent a lot of money on clothes,” he said. “So we had an avid walking community and an avid running community.”
“Running has diminished ever so small every year,” he said. “Last night I had four customers who were actual runners and I was so jacked. Today I’ve had two customers [who were runners].”
But 7516 Leesburg Pike closed its doors for good in August of this year, ending the storefront’s 26-year legacy. A new Potomac River Running location will take its place only four miles away, at the corner of Center Street and Maple Avenue in Vienna.
When asked what he thinks about the store moving, Kelly laughs. “From a selfish standpoint, I live about five minutes from the (Tysons) store,” he says. “But most of the customers that I’ve dealt with in the last month and a half, I’d say about 90 percent of customers who ask us about the move are pleased. I was very surprised by that.”
Pugsley, however, is not surprised. “We feel that the majority of our customer base wasn’t living right in the direct, close proximity of the store, that the majority of our customer base treated our store as a destination. And therefore, moving closer to Vienna is moving closer to the bulk of our customer base,” he said. “We were never getting people just walking over from their house. Everyone who came to shop was driving from somewhere else.”
Gallardo, now living in Florida, could see the change coming years ago.
“At that time, Tysons Station was a run-down strip center where businesses came and went on a regular basis,” she said. “That shopping center was located at one of the most incredible crossroads in the country – Route 66, Route 7 and Route 495. For years we had the center to ourselves; our customers could park and test out shoes all over the parking lot. Half the stores were empty. And that was the ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment. Along came Trader Joe’s and [that] changed everything.”
With that change comes the reality that Kelly has a new commute for the first time in 15 years.
“I guess I’m old enough now to come to terms with the fact that all things change,” Kelly said. “We hate it, but they change. There’s nothing I can do about it, so go with the flow.”