One day in 1982, Mike Andrews walked into the shoe store where his friend and fellow running enthusiast George Owen was working and pitched an idea.
Andrews didn’t care all that much for his job in a law office. Owen had just been through a divorce and had left his position at Hibernia Bank.
What they both really loved to do was run and have cocktails.
“Let’s open our own store,” Andrews suggested.
Their much-respected shop for runners on Magazine Street — Southern Runner — has been an institution ever since. For more than three decades, they have run clinics, held races and organized the parties that followed.
Thus did two former athletes escape a drab business world that wasn’t giving them much satisfaction, using a cartoon rat as their logo to enshrine a philosophy that was all about escaping the rat race.
Now, with Andrews turning 68 and Owen at 76, they are getting ready to hang up their jogging shoes, at least figuratively. Their store will close at the end of September.
To speak with the pair now is to get a taste of the odd-couple banter that New Orleans running aficionados have become familiar with inside of what Paul Morgan, a retired professor who was Owen’s fraternity brother, called a “shrine for the local running community.”
“We got the store going on $15,000 apiece,” Andrews said.
“It was $16,000,” countered Owen.
“George, it was $15,000, but let’s just say we were under-capitalized,” replied Andrews.
“Definitely under-capitalized,” said Owen, the former banker, shaking his head.
In the beginning, they had only 450 square feet in the front corner of their building at 6112 Magazine St. Then, when the furniture manufacturer they were sharing space with departed, they went to the bank for a loan and remodeled.
Both already had experience organizing events as officers of the New Orleans Track Club and members of the Greater New Orleans Runners Association.
Southern Runner held two to three races a month at Audubon Park on Wednesdays, calling them “Hump Day” races. Every race had a different theme or gimmick — banana races, blackjack races, “last shall be first” races. Everyone who ran — usually 200 or 250 people — was invited to repair afterward to one of the nearby watering holes, usually Audubon Tavern II or the Hofbrau House.
The duo’s knowledge of foot injuries brought them one of the highest compliments they ever earned when someone walked in and said, “My orthopedist told me to come see you.”
The store drew serious runners and serious characters.
Curtis Boudier, of Houma, “ran the Crescent City Classic in 35 minutes flat — in a long red dress — years before there was the popular Red Dress Run road race.” He also regularly joined Owen and Andrews for out-of-town escapades. “Great runner, better partier,” Owen said.
Elephants visited the store during several races benefiting the Audubon Zoo in the mid-’80s.
In 1985, WDSU-TV’s Margaret Orr was the official starter, perched atop one of the elephants. Andrews tried to hand her microphone to her, but he couldn’t reach her. When the animal’s handler prompted it to lower its head, the elephant obliged by pinning Andrews against the Channel 6 van. “They told me I turned white,” he said.
Over the years, Owen’s beer gut grew. He claims this was cultivated because “I didn’t run well under 175 pounds.” Even with the added girth, he said, “I could still motor pretty good.”
During running clinics, he would joke, “If you listen to everything I say and do everything I tell you to do, then in a few months, you’ll look exactly like me.”
Celebrities, local and national, frequented the store.
From the professional running world came the likes of Frank Shorter, winner of the 1972 Olympic marathon (and later winner of the inaugural Crescent City Classic in 1979) and Craig Virgin, the winner of the second Crescent City Classic. There were local politicos like Dutch Morial, Marlin Gusman and the Audubon Nature Institute’s Ron Forman. Comedian Will Ferrell bought shoes there and was once spotted at the airport wearing a Southern Runner T-shirt.
In 2014, Owen was enshrined in the New Orleans Track Club Hall of Fame, cited as “a cornerstone of the New Orleans running community for five decades.”
In accepting the honor, he said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s always fun when you can take your hobby and turn it into a business. You meet a lot of people you stay friends with for life.”
Needless to say, Owen and Andrews have mixed feelings about closing up shop.
“You walk in with a smile on your face every day,” Owen said. “It wasn’t showtime because it was showtime. It was showtime because I was happy: ‘What can I do to help you?’ ”
Andrews added, “It’s a good feeling and a bad feeling. We did something we loved, we served the community and it was a lot of fun. The bad part is not knowing what you’re going to do.”
Their friend Morgan said the news that Southern Runner is closing “hit me like the news of a death in my family.”
“One of the constants in my universe as I lived in several states and overseas three times in the last 33 years was the certain knowledge that George and Mike, Southern Runner and favorite watering holes like Bruno’s Tavern and the Maple Leaf on Oak Street would always be there like old friends when the frequent urge to return to the Big Easy became too much to resist,” he said.
“I know that change is the only certainty, and losing the store won’t keep me away from New Orleans, but some of the magic will surely be gone for me.”