BY MIKE CASSIDY Mercury News Staff Writer
When you walk into the Ballroom Dance Supply store on Bird Avenue, there is an understandable desire to ask: "You're kidding, right?"
But please don't. This is a serious concern. A growing venture.
You might be tempted to wonder: What's to supply? Moonlight? Romance? But resist.
The place seems as unlikely as a Tiddledywinks store or a Pinochle pro shop, but here it is. Maybe somebody knows something you don't.
That would be Bill Rowe. He knows it's gotta be the shoes. Dance shoes. It is the one ballroom dance product he sells more than any other. And he sells a lot. Nearly a quarter million dollars worth last year. He's got 2,000 pair, stacked from floor to ceiling in the back room and on display right behind the CD rack featuring "Hot Salsa from Japan," "Come on Dance Party" and "Werner Tauber's Swinging World."
Wouldn't dress shoes do? (Maybe, he says.) Or those comfy tennies?
"No. No. No," says Rowe, 42, who has a ffve-night-a-week dancing habit of his own. "Ballroom dance shoes are very rigid and very light. Every ballroom dance shoe has like a suede bottom. It's made for a clean wood floor."
Serious dancers know the difference. Some days especially Saturdays they jam his cramped shop south of San Carlos Street between the very used car lot and the cellular phone store. They pay $65 to $110 for a pair of kicks that will survive a year of steady use.
"I've found that they're very comfortable to dance in," said Carolyn Tobias, a firstyear dancer who dropped in to pick up a new pair for a special occasion. "It also has to do with the flash."
Ah, the flash. Tobias, a legal secretary who all but threatened legal action if her age were published, selected a black pair of heels with a strap and a dazzling sequin effect. Perfect for a tango.
Though Rowe hardly takes the credit, it seems his entry into the ballroom dance supply business 10 years ago coincided with the beginning of an ongoing ballroom dance boom.
Joe Metz, owner of the Starlite Ballroom in Sunnyvale, started sponsoring a weekly dance about the same time Rowe started selling shoes.
"I've watched them grow from 200 at their Friday night dance to 400 currently or maybe 460," said Metz, who is no longer the organizer of the dance at the old Cubberley High School in Palo Alto.
Metz's own dances at the Starlite drew about 360 dancers a week when he opened the ballroom five years ago. Now, about 720 people with 1,440 feet attend dances there.
Rowe attributes the new popularity to the apparent cause of all of society's recent ills and successes: baby boomers.
"When we were in our 20s, we were bar-hopping, going on a weekend doing hikes, rock climbing," he said. "These kinds of things are a little tougher to do now. They've got kids."
Whatever the reason, the popularity has led Rowe to start small shops in dance ballrooms in San Francisco and Sacramento and to form partnerships to run shops in Vacaville and Honolulu. He's developed his own shoe line Bill Rowe's BDS he's open for business seven days a week and he's considering starting a mail-order catalog.
Still, it is not as if the dance supply business was a lifelong dream.
"I could give you 500 guesses about what my original occupation was before you could guess it," he said.
And unless one of those guesses happened to be "nuclear engineer for General Electric Co.," he'd be right.
Rowe's gradual career change began when he took up dancin,g after finishing his master's d.egree at the University of California, Berkeley. Finally, he said, he had some time on his hands and feet.
"I took a few dance lessons,'' he said. "I liked it. I started going five days a week, but there was nowhere to buy dance shoes." So he and his girlfriend started a part-time shoe business. Then life intervened. Rowe and his girlfriend broke up. He kept the store. He lost his job. He concentrated on the store full time. ;
"At that time, the store was as profitable as my nuclear engineering job," he said. "So, I've never written a resume."
Former nuclear engineer Bill Rowe works seven days a week,specializing in shoes,at his dance supply store in San Jose.
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