City’s First Soccer Shop Slips Away

All too quietly, a tiny jewel of Seattle’s sporting history has slipped into the past.

All too quietly, a tiny jewel of Seattle’s sporting history has slipped into the past.

Officially it was Sports Specialties, yet for 33 years the cramped, quaint soccer shop in Belltown was simply synonymous with the name of its distinctive owner, Denzil.

Know this: Denzil Miskell is alive and doing well, but behind the nondescript storefront on Second Avenue sits an empty vessel. All that remains of this everyman’s gem is the generic player painted on the plate glass front, and a brief note on the door from Denzil explaining the absence.

Sports Specialties was unique when it opened at its original location near the Kingdome in 1974, and although many more shops sprouted along with the game’s growth in the decades since, Denzil’s place on Second Avenue was where customers could find great deals and a wry Welshman behind the counter.

After losing his lease, Denzil called it a day and closed his door for good Nov. 30. Peering in the windows, passersby see that the store has been stripped back to its studs and subfloor. Ordinarily, that would be sufficient to wipe out all traces of its existence. Yet such is not the case.

Sports Specialties, is sure to live on in memories and conversation for years and years to come.

Nothing Else Like It

“There will never be another place like Denzil’s,” says Mike Ryan, the area’s pioneering coach.

It was the first of its kind. Until 1974, when Denzil opened his original location along with John Hass near the Kingdome, shopping for soccer gear in Seattle was akin to hunting for snipe.

Much like the final visit to the location, my first trip as a teenager was met by a sign on the door. Something to the effect that the proprietor was out, but could be found across the street at the Rendezvous lounge. I waited down the block until I heard the jingle of the door being unlocked and opened.

Upon crossing the threshold, I felt transported a world away from here, to a place which might as well have been the spectacular Sports Pages in Picadilly. It didn’t matter whether you were from Burien, Bellevue or, like me, nearly a hundred miles beyond, Denzil’s was a destination location.

Writes John Wedge of Bainbridge: “In a time before the internet, chat rooms and, Denzil was the glue that connected Seattle’s soccer community,” adding that if Denzil had lived back in Britain, “he surely would have owned a pub.”

Ryan agrees. “It was the focal point,” he says. “We would gather in there on Monday evenings or Saturday afternoons and just chat about what was going on.

“Around the holidays he put out a big bowl of popcorn and candy. Without him, he was sadly missed at Christmas this year.”

All the Fixin’s

Certainly, it was a place to get your soccer fix. At that initial visit, I purchased my first goalkeeper kit, found the Sportcraft miniballs to dangle from my rearview mirror and enrolled in my first camp (Geoff Wall and Roy Sinclair’s summer sessions at Fort Worden). Later, I got a bag-full of Mitre Multiplexes for the team at Seattle Pacific and, in the last successful excursion, a full set of team uniforms (including the complimentary keeper gear) for the youth side I coached.

That was always an interesting experience. Out front were the display uniforms and shoes, with bins of specials on this and that. Once your jersey was selected, Denzil pointed you toward the seemingly endless inventory out back. It was a bit like looking for buried treasure, digging through boxes and boxes of socks, shirts and shorts. In the basement “cave” were vast supplies of studs and balls.

There is suspicion that some of the same posters, trophies and décor in 2007 was the same as that of 1977. Maybe some of the inventory too.

A customer came away disappointed only if he was seeking high style or name brand replica kit. Sports Specialties was for players, coaches and referees, and particularly those trying to outfit a squad on a tight budget.

Kevin Bywater served as West Seattle Soccer Club’s equipment manager for 18 years, faithfully returning each August to buy in bulk from Denzil.

Price Was Right

“A lot of stuff wasn’t top of the line,” says Bywater, “but he made you a pretty good deal.”

If anything, Denzil would steer shoppers toward the more affordable stock. “He could get you the major brands but he’d talk you out of it” notes Ryan. “Here the guy was a salesman and he would steer you away from the stuff that cost more money. You would walk in wanting a game ball for $100 and he’d sell you one for $20. He made money because he had a lot of loyal customers.”

As the fall seasons or state tournaments approached, the shop buzzed with business. Other times, not so much. It was then that Denzil would often disappear, either to the Rendezvous or, in recent times, to the Catholic Seamans’ Club a few blocks away. There he could enjoy a pint and see games from around the world via satellite.

Like me, most customers knew his return was worth the wait. He had bargained with dealers, sometimes paying pennies on the dollar to obtain closeouts and outdated models.

Beyond thrifty, Denzil could make a deal that simply couldn’t be refused.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that for our mini program he gave us stuff for free,” says Bywater. “And it wore like iron and we used it for years.”

His charity was felt worldwide. Each year Denzil would donate a container of goods to kids, be they from Seattle, El Salvador or Uganda.

“He was smart, he found a niche that was needed and worked with that niche,” Bywater says. “He was and will be good hearted to the end.”

“The most generous guy I ever came across,” states Ryan.

Irreplaceable Icon

A fire forced the relocation of Sports Specialties to what was a virtual ghost town in 1976. But the ongoing gentrification of Belltown kept raising the rent.

Denzil does not plan to reopen and start again. That leaves entire clubs such as Capitol Hill, West Seattle, Queen Anne and many more looking for a new supplier. Online alternatives may offer similar pricing, but nothing approaching the service and personality. Says Bywater: “We’ll never be able to replace it.”

With the soccer community preoccupied or idle during the holidays, many have not yet heard the news.

 “Whoa, Denzil closed his shop?” said original Sounder player and coach Jimmy Gabriel. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear it’s gone. Whew, that’s a bit of a shock.

“But Denzil, he’s like Mike and Cliff McCrath and me,” Gabriel adds. “The shop’s gone, but you just know he’ll always be around the game.”