Among its gentler parochialisms, Boston is called “The Hub”, or in full, “The Hub of the Universe” — a title conferred by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1858. While a tad presumptuous given the size and scope of at least one other five-borough burg 220 miles to the southwest, it is nonetheless rather less disputable that The Hub of the running universe in the decade from 1977 to 1986 existed at 372-A Chestnut Hill Avenue in Boston’s Cleveland Circle, the address of the original Bill Rodgers Running Center.
For those too young to remember, even after the Running Boom hit in the wake of Frank Shorter’s Olympic Marathon gold medal in Munich 1972, we still bought our running shoes at regular shoe stores or general sporting goods shops. Back then there were no such things as running specialty stores. I remember buying my first pair – I think they were $9.00 ProSpecs – at a little hole-in-the-wall shoe store on Harvard Avenue in Brighton, Mass. I was just quitting smoking, so I didn’t want to spend too much in case I didn’t like running.
But as one habit was exchanged for another, and the running wave continued to mount, Wesleyan grad Bill Rodgers appeared as a legitimate rival to ex-Yale Eli Shorter. And with that, the sport of foot racing surged into the mainstream of American culture and finally business, too. There was a booming new market to service. A generation which had once assembled for ‘sit-ins” during college was now meeting for fitness runs after work.
“Ready, Set, Sweat!” announced the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1977.
Following his victories in the Boston Marathon in 1975 & 1977, then the first two (of four straight) New York City Marathon titles – when the five-borough course was still brand new – “Boston Billy” led running into its coming of age. Thus, with his fame still budding, Bill and his older brother Charlie opened the first Bill Rodgers Running Center in the fall of 1977.
Cleveland Circle was an ideal location, on the western edge of the city, just one mile from the leafy Boston College campus, and terminus for the MBTA’s Green Line “C” trains. A bustling urban neighborhood, The Circle also happened to join the Boston Marathon route as it passed the 22-mile mark as the route turned onto Beacon Street for the final four mile stretch into town.
I had moved to Cleveland Circle in February of 1976, and by the following spring had begun Runner’s Digest, the first radio talk show devoted to the sport of running. When Bill and Charlie opened the store just two blocks from my apartment, it all but became my production studio.
With tape recorder in hand I would hang out as one running star after another came to visit. Then each night when Bill was in town I’d join him and a group of revolving regulars after the store closed for what was Bill’s second run of the day, mostly to and around Jamaica Pond. But since you couldn’t get him off the phone, we’d always start at least a half-hour late – not that any of us minded or called him on his tardiness.
With Bill in the role of queen bee, the store thrummed with the activity of a hive. Many people had never seen a store built especially for runners, and had Mitt Romney and Bain Capital been around, he may well have been an interested investor – not that Bill or Charlie would have welcomed him, since business never did seem to be their prime directive. With its director’s chairs, polished maple benches, and two-stall shower room out back, the place had a clubhouse feel to it, and many of us who were not natural joiners found an easy place to hang out.
Many a famous runner, from Patti Catalano (now Dillon), the first American woman to go sub-2:30 in the marathon, to Greg Meyer, who moved from Michigan to train with Bill, and remains the last American man to win the Boston Marathon (1983), to Maine’s late Andy Palmer, co-founder of Zap Fitness, the fast and the furious all worked on the sales floor to help keep themselves in training.
Though Bill’s name topped the marquee, it was brother Charlie who ran the show with Jason Kehoe as his trusty lieutenant. Bill, Charlie, and Jason had grown up together on the same block in Newington, Connecticut. All three had run for Newington High School before moving to Boston after college.
In the beginning coach Bob Sevene helped staff the store with runners from Bentley College. Sev and Charlie famously spent the February night of the Blizzard of `78 manning the barricades at the store wielding baseball bats waiting for the thieves who had broken in a previous night to return. Fortunately, the steel bars that Charlie had installed kept the thieves from feeling the wrath of an avenging Sev.
In short order the store became the focal point of the Boston running community, at least during daylight hours. At night we still reveled at the Eliot Lounge down on the corner of Mass Ave and Comm Ave. just a mile from the Boston Marathon finish line. Eliot Lounge bartender and founder of the Falmouth Road Race, Tommy Leonard, was among those who lived in Cleveland Circle. His was an easy commute via the Green Line trolley whose shrieking steel wheels and clanging bells could be heard at regular intervals as the trains turned into their yard throughout the day.
Greater Boston Track Club elites Bobby Hodge and Randy Thomas moved into an apartment at 22 Orkney Road just two blocks away as the store became a magnet for runners from both near and far. “Stop 42 on the Boston Marathon Tour,” we used to kid when busses of running pilgrims would descend like locusts and clean out the place every April during Marathon week.
Tuesday nights meant GBTC track sessions with coach Bill Squires one mile west at the over-sized Boston College track. The store was the perfect meeting place for the warm up and cool down runs. Afterwards, many of us would traipse over to the Ground Round on the far side of the Circle where barmaid Betsy would hold seats for us, even when the bar was three-deep with Celtics fans anxious for a perch to watch Larry Bird and the boys on the tube.
Though less structured than the Tuesday night track sessions at B.C. , Saturday afternoon runs after closing became the most legendary of the store’s legacies. Consisting of staffers like Jason, Charlie, Dave Ezersky, Dave Kromer, John Ellis, Gene Caso, Dave Dial and a number of close-in-talent friends, these excursions out Beacon Street to the Boston Marathon hills or out to Arnold Arboretum were dubbed Hate Runs, Dyonisian descents into pain to purge body and soul of the toxins built up by a week’s worth of retail.
For a full decade, 1977 to 1986, the BRRC was like a second home to me and many others. With his background as a guidance counselor, Charlie’s hiring practices often reflected his mothering tendencies. We often joked that the store was more like a halfway house than a true business proposition. But that’s also what made it special and distinct. Running wasn’t purely about business, and the store mirrored that value system.
In 1986 the store lost its lease on Chestnut Hill Avenue, and moved two miles east to 999 Beacon Street at the corner of St. Marys Street where the Green Line trolley went underground heading into Kenmore Square. But with no natural parking nearby, the 999 Beacon Street store only lasted four years before the operation consolidated at Faneuil Hall downtown where it remained for its final 22 years.
Just as running was once more about racing and the drive to improve, but has now morphed into an extension of an active lifestyle, the idea of a single specialty running store featuring a knowledgeable staff which lives what it preaches and asks for little more than enough to get by, has been crowded out by on-line shopping and box stores whose prices can’t be matched.
While savvy business people like Colin Peddie, owner of seven Marathon Sports stores throughout the Boston area, and Keith and Kevin Hanson, proprietors of four Hanson Running Shops in suburban Detroit, have proven that specialty running stores can thrive in collected force, societal trends that once created the need for the Bill Rodgers Running Center have now made it obsolete, a relic caught in the amber of time no more. Yes, but what it time it had been.
The writing was on the wall for the last several years, as business in general at Faneuil Hall has dropped off. But it was Jason Kehoe’s untimely death this past June 3rd that precipitated the store’s final closing.
“It’s not worth it anymore,” said Charlie. “We used to be the only place for runners to come, and I still love the history of the place. But now there are umpteen of these (specialty stores). In the end Jason and I were like a couple guys at an old hardware store whittling sticks waiting for someone to come around to buy horse shoes. “
The BRRC will officially close on Wednesday, October 31st, Halloween night. Tales will be told, glasses will be lifted and ghosts will live once again. 35 years is an impressive run, by any standard. But all things must pass, even as Hate Runs have turned into easy jogs.
We were runners once, and young. And before the full responsibility of age descended, we were fortunate to share a place that became the hub of our universe, a place we could all call home.
(A version of this article was first published October 17th on runnersworld.com. It is used here with their permission, and my thanks.)