After 42 years of operation, local running store and Belmont University neighbor The Athlete’s House is approaching the finish line and is slated to close its doors in October.
“It’s been a good run, but it’s time at 71 to find something else to do,” said owner and founder David Graeflin. “You have to change with the times, but we’re fortunate to have weathered 42 years.”
Graeflin founded the store in 1973, five years before he set up shop in the historic, light blue brick building on Portland Avenue he now occupies.
In those early days, he ran track and cross country for Vanderbilt, studied engineering and sold running shoes out of the back of his pickup truck–typical student stuff.
“At the time, in 1973, there was nowhere to buy running shoes,” he said.
He noticed a gap in the Nashville market and, despite possessing no prior business experience, set out to fill it.
And just like that, Tennessee’s first running store was established.
Forty-two years later, this fact is proudly proclaimed from the store’s current property, which Graeflin purchased in 1978.
In the 27 years since, he has witnessed firsthand the sweeping growth which has come to define Belmont, its surrounding neighborhood and the sport to which he caters.
Belmont-Hillsboro at the time was a neighborhood people avoided rather than adored. The landscape of the university itself was drastically different. And running was certainly not the social, popular pastime it is today.
But, as Graeflin said, times change. Streets are gentrified; new dorms and buildings get constructed and running clubs and amateur teams get formed.
The relationship between the store and the school, despite having its ups and downs, has overall been very good, he said.
Throughout the years, Belmont has expressed interest in buying the property. Now that the building will soon be vacated, however, Belmont has not made an offer, but “everything is up for sale,” he said.
For 20 years, he has served as a member of Belmont’s overlay committee, a group of local residents and business owners who assist the college in decisions regarding property ownership, building construction and other neighborhood-related concerns.
He also provided Belmont’s cross country and track teams with gear until three years ago, when the school switched to Nike as its sole provider.
Despite the switch, the store’s relationship with the teams has remained amicable and alive.
“He’s been here for almost 30 years and has been very gracious to us,” Head Coach Jeff Langdon said. “It was an icon. They’re going to be missed.”
Beyond the committees and contracts, The Athlete’s House serves the community in smaller ways, as well.
It has hosted training classes, advocated for local charities and supported Strides, a local running club.
The store has also kept legions of runners hydrated. Friends have affectionately dubbed Graeflin as Waterman due to the store’s 15-year-long commitment to providing runners with free water contained in friendly, bright orange coolers on the sidewalk outside the store.
Those coolers alone starkly contrast the store’s neutral white front. But with its closure quickly approaching, similarly vivid “Going Out of Business” signs have joined its colorful ranks.
An unaware passerby might think the veritable team of signs excessive; but, for the community, the store’s closure is a big deal worthy of a big scene.
“There’s lots of sad people in this town right now,” Graeflin said with a laugh. “I’ve got grandkids, even great-grandkids coming to shop here with their grandparents. Three generations, for sure, sometimes now even four.”
When the store started, it pioneered athletic merchandising; now, larger chains like Dick’s Sporting Goods crowd and vie for the market.
Yet, due to its commitment to community development and good business tactics—plain and simple—this entrepreneurial underdog has always managed to stay in the fight.
“Good employees, giving people good customer service and having the product” are all elements to which Graeflin attributes his success. But the philosophy behind it all is even simpler.
And given the store’s commitment to its neighborhood, the friendly atmosphere and storied history, the idea seems very appropriate in making this Athlete’s House more like a home. It’s an idea which has sustained a business through a marathon-length stay all the way to the finish line.
Graeflin’s big business secret?
“You just need to treat people as you would like to be treated.”
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