A child steps up to the counter to purchase his first soccer ball.

Instead of his parents being greeted with the usual "Cash or charge?" refrain, he is met with a series of silly riddles before leaving the store with the ball under his arm, a complimentary lollipop in his mouth and a smile on his face.

For a quarter-century such scenes have played out at Soccer Locker, a small retail shop located at 4719 South Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach.

But those days are numbered as owner and operator Ansel Lovell, a fixture in the local soccer community, prepares to close his doors for the last time in September.

"It has been fun working for myself and doing things my way," said Lovell, who turns 65 later this year. "I'm old-school retail. All I know is getting to know the customers and sharing a laugh with the kids. I have been here so long now that the parents have been coming in ever since they were kids."

In a town known for wacky roadside attractions, Soccer Locker has one of the most recognizable — a vintage Volkswagen Beetle painted like a soccer ball.

The inside of the store is even more eye-catching, with wall-to-wall soccer gear and more hanging from the ceiling. Lovell and his small staff even take the time to lace up the cleats for clients until finding the right fit, and letting the kids test out their new kicks on a makeshift goal.

"I was his first customer when he opened his doors and I will be his last customer when he closes," said Myrtle Beach High JV girls soccer coach Jeri Himmelsbach, who helped Lovell start local youth programs before he launched Soccer Locker in 1994. "Local soccer has seen wonderful growth over the years and Ansel has been a big part of it. He got the ball rolling."

After growing up in nearby Marion County and graduating from Clemson University, Lovell worked at local amusement parks and the old Myrtle Beach YMCA, where he ran area recreation leagues. It was there he realized the niche for a soccer specialty shop on the Grand Strand, but apparently he wasn't the only one with the idea.

"Another soccer store opened up right down the street about a month before we did," Lovell recalled. "He was a friend of mine and we didn't know what the other was doing, but there was a real need at the time. We have gone from about 700 kids playing soccer to over 3,000. I have been fortunate to see it grow over the years."

But a different type of competition is prompting Soccer Locker to close its doors.

The growth of local youth soccer over the past 25 years has coincided with the explosion of the Internet, where shoe companies sell cleats directly to customers and web sites like Amazon.com offer all types of soccer gear at unbeatable prices.

"(Soccer Locker) isn't just a store that specializes in soccer; it's all about Ansel," said Coast Futbol Alliance executive director Heyward Gulledge, a customer for over 20 years. "His personality sets him apart from his competitors. That's what has allowed him to defend against the Internet for so long. He sets the gold standard for customer service."

Lovell doesn't begrudge the online competition that is sending him into retirement, and he says he cherishes the time spent working alongside sons Brent and Ryan and a long list of employees, as well as serving his countless loyal customers.

But now he is looking forward to the next chapter of life, especially spending more time with his wife, Julie, and their three grandchildren.

"I'm not bitter at the internet or Amazon," Lovell said. "We've had a great run and I have enjoyed coming to work here every day for the past 25 years, but now it's time to do something else. My wife is a retired teacher and she loves it. She has lots of friends and hobbies. Well, I don't have any friends or hobbies."

Lovell may be half right, but local soccer fans are sure to miss a great friend to their favorite hobby.

"So many of the local soccer coaches have been in it for a long time, and we all think the world of him," Himmelsbach said. "There's a mutual admiration society for Ansel and everything he has done for soccer in the area."

Although no closing date has been set, Lovell says Soccer Locker will shut down sometime after Labor Day. He plans to auction off the old VW, with half the proceeds going to the Grand Strand Miracle League, leaving an empty spot in the parking lot and the local soccer community.

"There's going to be a giant hole," Gulledge said. "The landscape of youth soccer has changed a lot over the past 25 years, but Ansel has been that steady, galvanizing force. There's no longer going to be that mutual gathering point."


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