Aardvark Sports Shop

By Frederick Jerant

Although major sporting goods chains strive to be all things to all athletes, Aardvark Sports Shop in Bethlehem has stayed focused on its original niche—shoes and accessories for serious runners.

The store was founded in 1984 by Chuck Kovacs. Kovacs ran the Bethlehem business on Guetter Street for just four years before selling it to Richard Haines, who was working in the admissions office of Lafayette College at the time.

Better known as “Dick,” Haines was an avid runner, competing on cross-country teams at Upper Darby High School and Lafayette College. He continued to pound the pavement as an adult, even placing ninth overall in the 1962 Boston Marathon (with a time of 2:33:09).

Haines moved Aardvark Sports to Main Street for a couple of years, and then to a spot at the corner of Main and Market Streets.

Son Bruce joined the company in 1995, and bought it outright three years later. Just three years after that, the shop moved again—this time to the former home of Orr’s department store. But Aardvark’s odyssey wasn’t quite over. In October 2010, it took a short hop to the window-side of the building, now known as Main Street Commons.

“It’s unusual,” Haines says. “We’ve been in five spots since opening, and all within a few blocks of each other.”

Haines opened a second store, in Stroudsburg, in 2005, to address the running market in northwest New Jersey and the Poconos.

Aardvark’s product mix is about 65% footwear (primarily for running, along with some walking and fitness shoes) and 20% apparel. Various accessories—such as socks, GPS watches, heart rate monitors and other paraphernalia, make up the balance.

Aardvark’s clientele is primarily high-school age to mid-60s. “Generally, children don’t benefit from our ‘technical’ running shoes, which are designed for forward motion. They lack the lateral stability that’s needed in a basketball or tennis shoe to maintain comfort and safety,” Haines says. “And a regular athletic shoe is made with a dense midsole to keep it from falling apart. Kids usually outgrow their shoes before they wear out.”

Don’t expect to just stroll into the shop and grab a pair of shoes, though.

“We’re far from a self-service store,” Haines says. “In fact, it can take up to an hour for our staff to help a customer find the shoes that fit properly.”

This one-on-one session can cover the customer’s running history, goals, injury history, current concerns and similar topics. An Aardvark staffer will recommend several pairs of shoes, which the customer can “test-run” on the store treadmill or even outdoors.

Aardvark Sports Shop also enjoys referral business from area podiatrists, physical therapists and other professionals whose patients often have special needs for support, cushioning and overall fit.

The shop doesn’t have a formal training program, but new employees spend significant time learning about the store’s stock, common foot injuries and conditions, and other information that contributes to choosing proper footwear.

“We also have monthly staff meetings,” Haines says, “where we review customers’ questions and concerns, new products coming to the market, and similar topics. Everyone in the store is a runner, and can bring personal experiences to the table.”

Haines notes that, although there’s no formal certification program for retailers, the Independent Running Retailers Association—of which he is a member—is looking into it. “It would be aimed specifically at people working in stores like ours,” he says, “and I’d be eager to get the certification. Our staff really knows their stuff—but this program would acknowledge that officially.”

Speaking of staff, “Our core employees have been with us a long time,” Haines says. “Brian Schafer has been with us for 16 years and Jonathan Notary has worked here for 12. Between them, they’ve seen just about every kind of foot issue and patient requirement there is.”

Aardvark Sports Shop also stresses customer service. “These days, it’s kind of old-fashioned,” he says, “but we work hard to deal with each customer’s needs appropriately.”

The store is an ardent supporter of community events. “It’s our nature to get involved in numerous things throughout the year,” Haines says.

Aardvark’s contribution is usually limited to providing gift cards or cash donations, but employees sometimes volunteer or participate in the events themselves.

In addition, Aardvark Sports Shop offers periodic clinics on stretching, nutrition, marathon training, core strengthening and similar topics in its stores.

Finally, sports teams often have big, ferocious animals as mascots—alligators, bears, bobcats, wolverines—but how did Aardvark Sports Shop hook up with such a slowpoke?

“I’ve heard that Chuck Kovacs wanted a store name that would be at the top of all lists, like the phone book,” Haines says, “with two As at the beginning. His sister-in-law suggested ‘Aardvark,’ and the name stuck. It gives us a nice logo to play with, and helps establish a friendly image for the stores.”

Visit aardvarksportsshop.com for business hours, directions, a virtual tour of both stores and other information.

Bruce Haines

Aardvark Sports Shop
517 Main St.
Bethlehem, PA 18018

Stroudsburg store
539 Main St.
Stroudsburg, PA 18360

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