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A staple of North Philly’s sneaker scene is facing potential prison time after admitting to $4 million tax evasion scheme

Yong Lee, whose store Young's Sneaker City, has been a Girard Avenue fixture since the mid-'80s, admitted to hiding millions in cash sales from the IRS.

Yong Lee, owner of Young's Sneaker City on West Girard Avenue in Brewerytown, poses for photos with then-Mayor Jim Kenney during a November 2023 visit to his store.
Yong Lee, owner of Young's Sneaker City on West Girard Avenue in Brewerytown, poses for photos with then-Mayor Jim Kenney during a November 2023 visit to his store.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

A fixture of North Philadelphia’s sneaker scene is facing the threat of federal prison time after admitting Thursday that he hid more than $4 million in sales from the IRS.

Yong Lee, whose Young’s Sneaker City has amassed a loyal following after nearly four decades selling shoes from its Girard Avenue storefront, pleaded guilty to four felony counts of tax evasion, each carrying a maximum punishment of up to five years.

In all, prosecutors say, Lee, 63, of Dresher, dodged nearly $500,000 in taxes he and his business owed between 2017 and 2020 by underreporting sneaker sales he carried out in cash.

“Did you do what the government says you did?” U.S. District Judge John M. Younge asked him during a hearing in Philadelphia.

Lee — who chose a pair of sensible dress shoes for his court appearance Thursday — responded with a resigned, “Yes.”

For years, Young’s Sneaker City has been a bright spot on its stretch of Girard Avenue, on the edge of Brewerytown. Lee opened the shop in the mid-’80s after immigrating to Philadelphia from South Korea with his family in 1974.

Since then, the store, where he works with his wife and twin sons, has become a staple among avid North Philadelphia sneakerheads on the hunt for the latest fashionable kicks.

Its Instagram account, which has attracted 30,000 followers, features photos of loyal customers buying, browsing its extensive collection of New Balance tennis shoes, and just hanging out. Then-Mayor Jim Kenney stopped by on Small Business Saturday last November to recognize Lee’s success as a local, independent vendor.

Patrons’ loyalty to Lee ran so deep that they guarded his store’s entrance during the looting that erupted during the May 2020 racial injustice protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd.

“During the looting, this store ain’t get touched,” customer Christian Smith told The Inquirer in 2021, “out of respect for him.”

In court Thursday, Lee acknowledged his failure to report many of the store’s cash sales on his corporate and personal income taxes and said he primarily used the money for routine expenses including groceries and household bills.

Though Lee initially lied about the unreported income when first confronted by IRS investigators in February 2022, he came clean during a subsequent interview in December of that year — even telling agents he’d used $730,000 of the funds to buy homes for his sons in Montgomery County.

“He’s accepted responsibility for his actions, and looks forward to resolving the matter,” Lee’s lawyer Jonathan J. Sobel said after Thursday’s hearing. He said Lee intends to keep Young’s Sneaker City open despite the case against him.

Younge, the judge, scheduled Lee’s sentencing date for July 30.