Jamal Gaines, 21, overcame a car accident and partial blindness to run a thriving business before he was shot and killed while closing up shop.
East Coast sneaker store sits on a commercial strip in downtown Rahway, New Jersey, a working class city just south of Newark. For the past two and a half years, it has been a destination for sneaker collectors throughout the state. But this week, the hole-in-the-wall boutique remains darkened and locked. Four days ago, East Coast’s owner, 21-year-old Jamal “Mally” Gaines, was shot and killed inside the shop he had worked for years to build.
“He worked every day, day in and day out, to help his sister, mother, and grandmother,” said one of Gaines’s business partners, who calls himself SoleyGhost, in an interview. He recalled one day several weeks ago when a blizzard blanketed Rahway in snow. He called Gaines to warn him not to go into work, “but it was too late for that. He wouldn’t let it happen. He had business to do.”
Gaines’s obsession with sneakers began in middle school. He’d pore over YouTube videos of sneakerheads detailing their latest hauls, and camp outside of stores when a new model would be released. “He just had a love for them,” his older sister, Divinity Gaines, tells The Trace. “One time he told me, ‘The sneakers just love me back. I can go to them and they’re always going to be there.’”
At 18, Gaines sold most of his 500-pair collection and invested in his first shop. The business didn’t catch on and closed within three months. But Gaines remained undeterred. He had cultivated a reputation for resilience as a senior in high school, when he recovered from a serious car accident. And last year, he dealt with a progressive eye disease that left him blind in one eye.
Following the initial closure of his store, Gaines stacked boxes at FedEx until he saved enough to try again. Six months later, in the summer of 2013, he opened his second boutique beside a Masonic temple on Irving Street. Inside the narrow, low-ceilinged space, he populated one brick wall with rows of pristine Nikes: Jordans, LeBrons, Kobes — some of which sold for up to $1200 a pair.
Last Friday night, Gaines closed the shop as usual around 8 pm. He was still there an hour later when some men pounded on the back door. Gaines told a friend to let them in, according to an employee who was there that night and later spoke with Gaines’s mother, Tina Wilson. “The guy pushed his arm and put the gun to his head, so my son threw a drink on the guy with a gun and ran toward him. And the second guy shot him,” Wilson told News 12 New Jersey.
Gaines’s death marked the first gun homicide this year in Rahway, according to the Gun Violence Archive. In 2015, there were only two gun murders in the city of more than 28,000. Authorities are still searching for suspects, and a motive. “They didn’t get money, they didn’t get sneakers. They just got Mally,” said SoleyGhost in an interview. “I lost a best friend and a business partner over nothing. Zero.” SoleyGhost and other friends of Gaines plan tokeep the store going to preserve his legacy.
On Saturday evening, nearly 150 people — friends, family, and community members — flooded the street in front of the shop, holding candles, sharing memories, and voicing outrage about Gaines’s death.
“Young black man with a business!” shouted Miriam Harris, pointing to the shop’s illuminated sign behind her. “We need that. That’s important in our community.”
On the sidewalk behind her, mourners had propped plastic-wrapped bouquets of roses in the insoles of Nike shoes.