Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Runners cater to their own in Center City

Bryan Mahon jokes that he and his nine siblings all became runners to ensure they got seats at the dinner table at home in Southern California.

Heather McDanel of Students Run Philly Style and owners Bryan Mahon (right) and Ross Martinson at the Sansom Street store.
Heather McDanel of Students Run Philly Style and owners Bryan Mahon (right) and Ross Martinson at the Sansom Street store.Read moreDAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer

Bryan Mahon jokes that he and his nine siblings all became runners to ensure they got seats at the dinner table at home in Southern California.

He kept running, first to the East Coast, thanks to a track scholarship at St. Joseph's University, and later as part of an entrepreneurial test of endurance no less daunting than the five marathons Mahon, 37, has logged.

It was 10 years ago that he and partners opened a store catering to runners in a city whose running community wasn't especially cohesive or noticeable. Even the site of their Philadelphia Runner store - the corner of 16th and Sansom Streets - was a gamble, reflected in a rent that was one-third the price of higher-profile space a block over on Walnut Street.

Inspiration was on the Main Line: Bob Schwelm, or, as Mahon adoringly calls him, "the godfather of running stores." With the opening of his Bryn Mawr Running Co. in 1991, Schwelm demonstrated what a store could do to build a sense of community among runners. Mahon worked there along with St. Joe's track teammate Ross Martinson while they were in school.

After graduation, Mahon and Martinson helped a friend with a running store in Princeton, which reinforced their desire to have one that would make a community difference.

"We knew there was a good opportunity to get involved in Philly and really become that community store," Mahon said, noting that national chains then dominated the city.

Reality has been both stunning and humbling as Philadelphia Runner, profitable since its third year, prepares to open a fourth store in January in Manayunk, he said. For competitive reasons, Mahon would not disclose financials other than to say sales are nearly triple what they were after the first year.

"Exceeded our craziest dream," he said of Philadelphia Runner, which now employs 35 running enthusiasts, 14 of whom are full time and get full medical benefits and a 4 percent 401(k) match. The company put on its first significant race, the Philly 10K, a 6.2-miler, on Sept. 6. It sold out in 30 minutes, attracting 3,300 participants.

Students Run Philly Style, a nonprofit that helps young people ages 12 to 18 realize their potential through running, credits its nearly 10-year existence to donations, mentoring, and board involvement by Philadelphia Runner.

"Not everyone would operate a business the way they do and think in a community spirit," said Heather McDanel, executive director of Students Run.

To get Philadelphia Runner out of the blocks, Mahon turned to an expert - Schwelm. With his own expanding Bryn Mawr Running Co. to steer, Schwelm soon sold his ownership stake to Martinson, whose extensive race accomplishments include finishing 23d at the 2007 Boston Marathon.

Also involved in Philadelphia Runner as an investment partner is Steve Siegfried, president and CEO of Corsemax, an information-technology solutions company in Wayne, and an avid runner.

It was a slow, "uh-oh, what did we do?" start, said Mahon, who responded like a runner - by hitting the pavement.

"We really had a grassroots go-out-and-go-connect as much as we could," he said.

Philadelphia Runner's first expansion was to University City in 2007, after Onur Yucelt, an agent with Madison Marquette, a Washington-based investor, developer, and operator of retail and retail mixed-use real estate, came calling on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania.

Yucelt was a downright pest three years later, persuading Mahon and Ross to open a third store, in Glen Eagle Square Shopping Center in Glen Mills.

"In that category, there isn't a lot of competition," Yucelt said. "They have a very strong focus, and they know what they're doing. Those things attracted me."

All have been fruitful moves. Whether Manayunk will be is uncertain.

"We closed Manayunk four years ago," said Bryn Mawr Running Co.'s Schwelm. "I think it's a gamble. I'm not confident in Manayunk - that's why we left."

Ross and Mahon see it differently. Despite a significant exodus of retailers, the Schuylkill River Trail and the canal path are giving runners, bikers, and hikers a reason to go through Manayunk's downtown, Ross said.

"We do think it's set to come back," he said.

More worrisome to Philadelphia Runner's owners is the trend of suppliers opening their own stores and limiting or even completely ending supplies to independent retailers.

"It could be a lot or even most of our major suppliers at some point in the near future," Mahon said in an e-mail. "There is nothing definite right now, . . . but definitely some of our key partner brands have even warned/told us that they are planning on opening in Center City."

Last week, Cara Delli Paoli, 26, stopped into the Sansom Street store to get new Asics for the Philadelphia Half Marathon on Nov. 23, the same day as the marathon.

"I just like they are so dedicated to the Philadelphia community," she said, "from the right shoes to how to train for your races."


215-854-2466 @dmastrull