Going the distance

When I first heard the name, I thought it was a mordant take on “dead man walking.” It’s actually a wink and nod to the store’s core clientele, an elite group to which I don’t belong: the hardcore long-distance runner. Black Toenail is a condition where a nail turns black (duh) and eventually falls off from constant running – a memorable rite of passage. 

If the name is authentic, the store feels so as well, starting with the location: in the base of a condo on Toronto’s King Street West, which is a major artery for condo development (stuck in hyperdrive in this city) and a common route for urban runners. Then there’s the image on the back feature wall, carefully chosen by +Tongtong principal John Tong: spectators wearing “GoPre” T-shirts at a race Steve Prefontaine – the legendary American long-distance runner who helped inspire the 1970s running boom – was competing in. Finally, the materials used mirror the environment where the urban runner (in T.O. and elsewhere) trains. Concrete, slate, wood and chain link summon up the waterfront and city streets, alleyways and city parks, ravines and paths beside railway tracks. “It’s an interesting location,” says Tong. “You might expect a café or a corner store, but Black Toe offers something that a lot of people who live and work in the neighbourhood actually engage with.”

At the centre of the store, occupying a mere 900 square feet, a striking black-steel monolith displays Black Toe Running’s shoe selection; topped with concrete, it features the footprints of runners from the community. One side of the unit ramps up subtly to a raised platform area, where a few shallow steps then lead down to the other side. To accentuate the clean lines and the dynamic shift in elevation, Tong split the case down the middle. Oak planks were chosen for the path, riffing on the look of a boardwalk, lit by small exterior lights usually found outside on walking paths. Says Tong, “We tried to create a terrain that is tactile yet urban and man-made.” 

Flanking the ends of the store are large sculptural elements made of chain-link fencing and geometric wooden structures cantilevering forward. On one side of the store, Tong positioned multi-purpose bleachers. “Visually, bleachers signal social gathering, anticipating a sense of spectacle,” he says, “but they are also purely functional: a place to try on shoes and display products.” The bleachers will also be used as a hub to host seminars and events, as well as the meeting place for group runs store plans to organize. 

The glass countertop toward the back of Black Toe Running performs double duty as a place for the cash register as well as a consultation bar with stools. In a final bid for authenticity, a drinking fountain is located nearby -– for runners to stop in and fill up their water bottles, of course.  cI