October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

Are your sneakers so ripe you can find them in the dark? Is it finally time to toss them? Before you consign them to a toxic dump, perhaps you should pause, take a deep breath (not too deep) and ponder whether there’s a home for them—in, say, Japan.

Tace Chalfa, who, with her husband, Ed, owns Seattle’s Red Light vintage clothing store, makes a nice living—$300,000 gross last year—finding new homes for old sneakers. “The Japanese, particularly Japanese teenagers, just really like American memorabilia,” says Chalfa, 26, who found her calling about three years ago, after a young Japanese tourist paid $1,000 for a pair of orange-and-green 1978 Nike Stings she had picked up for $50. Now, Chalfa is one of the more successful of the country’s “sneaker pimps,” as vintage sneaker dealers are called.

Through a network of pickers—people who shop garage sales and flea markets—and by advertising, Chalfa buys as many as 30,000 pairs of used and unused Nikes, Adidases and Converses a year, sometimes paying as much as $2,000 for a pair of original handmade Nikes (used). Japanese fashion magazines consult her, and collectors searching for vintage footwear seek her out.

Chalfa, raised on Decatur Island off the Washington coast, has always preferred pre-owned. In fact she met Ed while cruising his thrift shop. And their store got its name because Chalfa found a deal on some neon. “They only had enough letters to spell ‘Red Light,’ ” she says.

Just because she’s a sneaker pimp, though, doesn’t mean Chalfa wears her wares. She has her own foot fetish: about 120 pairs of platform shoes. All vintage, of course.

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