IRMO — When youngsters tried on soccer cleats at Corner Kick, co-owner Jay Burns engaged them so much they felt a special connection. Sometimes, they would ask Jay to come see them play in their new shoes. As often as his busy work schedule would allow, he would show up at the fields in the Irmo area and offer encouragement.
Burns is going to miss that personal connection when the Corner Kick closes in early December. The first soccer-specific store in the area when it opened 25 years ago in a new strip shopping center on St. Andrews Road, Corner Kick survived the rise of Walmart and sports-oriented big-box stores on Harbison Boulevard. It finally is succumbing to the Internet age.
Only in the past few years, many of the kids have changed buying habits, Jay said. Now they come to the store to try on cleats, then go home and order them online to save a few bucks.
“America’s not going to have any small businesses before long,” said Ann Burns, Jay’s mother, who started Corner Kick in 1987. “We’ve turned into a lazy country. It’s a lot easier to point and click.”
Those words read more bitter than they sounded. The overriding emotion in Corner Kick in recent weeks has been more bittersweet.
“It has been a very long and enjoyable ride,” Ann wrote in an email sent to long-term customers. “It’s not a decision I am happy to make but times are changing, and the need for a good old hometown soccer store seems to be a thing of the past. The days of the store being filled after school with kids who just wanted to hang out and talk soccer or see the latest styles of cleats are gone.”
Ann Burns opened Corner Kick when Jay was a toe-dragging youth soccer player going through a pair of cleats a month. He helped out at the store while playing at nearby Irmo High School and on breaks during his years at Lees-McRae College and the University of Wyoming.
Jay returned to the store after college and gradually took over its day-to-day operations, often as the only worker in the store as his mother scaled back her hours. Customers flocked to the store not only for the shoes and equipment but for the atmosphere.
Television sets played World Cup and European league soccer highlights (on VHS tapes to this day). And Jay loves to talk about any aspect of the game, or listen to others tell their soccer stories. The store benefited from being only a couple of blocks from Irmo High and its perennial soccer championship teams.
A few of the Irmo players were lucky enough to land part-time jobs at the store. They still stop by whenever they’re in town, Ann said. One who hadn’t worked at the store in six years volunteered to keep the store open recently when Ann and Jay had to travel to Florida for a family funeral.
One portion of the back wall is covered in photographs brought in by customers. There are posed team shots and out-of-focus action shots taken by family members. Kids used to get excited when they could find their own photo on the wall. (Another sign of technological progress: The photos stopped coming in recent years as cameras went digital.)
“Kids would come in and look for their picture and say, ‘Oh wow! They put it up on the board,’” Jay said. “There are kids in these photos who are coaches now.”
Those young adults who grew up with the store have been stopping by after hearing through the soccer grapevine about the closing. Some cry, prompting more tears from Jay and Ann.
Chapin High boys soccer coach Kellie Herndon is one of those who hasn’t been able to keep his eyes dry when he visited the store recently.
“It’s hard,” said Herndon, who stopping by the store almost daily when he was a student and soccer player at Irmo High in the 1990s. “They’ve invested so many years in that store. They haven’t been doing that well for several years, but they kept it going for us.”
The “us” he is speaking of is a community of soccer players, young and old, male and female. Anyone interested in the sport felt comfortable at Corner Kick.
“To me, it’s been more than a store,” Herndon said. “I consider them my second family. It always felt like a home. It didn’t feel like a store where you were pressured to buy something.”
Mike Mauldin, who has coached high school and club soccer teams for decades, recalls first shopping at Corner Kick a couple of years after it opened. He most recently stopped by for help finding the right-sized cleats for a German exchange student.
“It was a place where you could go and get equipment and talk about the game with somebody who knew the game,” Mauldin said. “There aren’t many places like that around.
“It’s sad that it’s closing. The community is going to look for it, and it’s not going to be there.”
At least two soccer-specialty stores survive in the area, both in Northeast Richland. Soccer Post SC is new to the game, but Soccer Plus started only a few years after Corner Kick. Soccer Plus owner Tripp Miller is among those who hates to see Corner Kick close.
Miller’s business also has struggled during the recession, but Soccer Plus has been boosted by its associated screen printing of soccer uniforms and other apparel. Miller said he “was extremely saddened to see another small business have to make a difficult decision and wish Jay nothing but the best in his future.”
The one positive out of the closing is that Jay had a job option. He is joining Todd & Moore with the goal of expanding the local sporting goods store’s soccer offerings. Ann recalled that when a Todd & Moore store opened in the Harbison area years ago – it has since closed – they would send hard-core soccer customers to Corner Kick.
“I’m going to miss getting to see my mom every day, and I’m going to miss the loyal customers that I’ve known all my life, hearing the stories from them,” Jay said. “I’m not going to miss worrying about the overhead, fixing the toilets and replacing the light bulbs.”
One of the shop’s two televisions, an old-timer that plays VHS tapes, stopped working a couple of weeks ago. Jay took that as a comment on the decision to close the store.
“It was time.”