Buying Shoes

Reading Bernadette’s post about buying shoes reminded me of my own childhood memories at the shoe store.

There were two shoe stores, actually. One was downtown, Fletcher’s Shoes. The other was at the Belden Village mall, Buster Brown.

Both of them were the same deal. We went in and waited our turn for service. There were a few shoes out on display in the front room. But all the shoes were really in the back room where only the shoe salespeople were allowed. There was none of this picking your own off the shelf.

At both places, you couldn’t buy shoes until you’d been measured for shoe size. You couldn’t tell them what size you were. You had to be measured. Even if you’d just come from the other shoe store and knew your size earlier that morning. You had to be measured.

Then the salesperson would go back into the mysterious room and come out with five or six pairs to try on.

The salesperson would tie them for you. This was pre-velcro. If the salesperson was really good, they’d get them tied snug, but not too tight. The shoe tying would almost always end with a little tap, tap of a finger over the knot.

I don’t know what kind of magic that tap, tap elicited. I do know that nobody tied shoes like the shoe salesperson at the shoe store. It made your feet feel special. Like in these shoes you really could run as fast as The Flash.

Then, after a run down the aisle to see if they would indeed make you run as fast as The Flash, you returned to the salesperson who would press in at the toe to make sure that you had “room to grow on,” but not too much.

Buster Brown went out of business sometime during my teenage years. It seems like that spot at the mall was replaced by a Borders book store. Now that Borders is gone I have no idea what’s there. Next time I get to Belden Village I’ll have to check.

About the same time Buster Brown went away, the Foot Locker appeared at the mall.

The first time I went into the Foot Locker, I just didn’t get it. There were people standing around in black and white referee shirts. One of them asked, “Can I help you?” and I said, “Yes, I need a pair of shoes.” They just pointed to the shelves full of shoeboxes.

I started looking around the piles of boxes. “Do you know what size?” the guy in the referee shirt asked. “No,” I said. He pointed to a couple foot-measuring things lying around on the floor. “You can use those,” he said.

I had an idea how to use the foot measurer from watching the shoe salesperson at Buster Brown doing it all those times. But it didn’t feel right.

I had to bend over, for one thing. Which meant that I wasn’t standing up on it while someone else manipulated the slide-levers. How could I be sure I was getting the right measurement if I wasn’t standing on it properly?

It’s like trying to give yourself a back rub. Sure, you can sorta scratch the itch, but it’s not quite the same.

Then, once I had my size, I had to search through the piles of shoeboxes. How could I ever know whether one particular style of shoe was better than another. None of the people in striped shirts seemed much interested in pointing out which style I might like.

Fletcher’s Shoes was one of the downtown stores that went the way of all downtown stores about the same time Buster Brown got replaced by Foot Locker. It had been a family operation for years. It’s where you went for school shoes. Once, I asked the lady at Fletcher’s once if she had any gym shoes. She gave me a look as if to say, “We’d sooner go out of business than sell gym shoes.” And that’s exactly what they did.

On one trip to Fletcher’s, the sales lady (at Fletcher’s it was always the same sales lady) told a story while she was measuring us. She was telling it mostly to my mother, I think. I’m pretty sure she meant it as advice my mother would do well to imitate.

The story was about one day when a mother brought all her children (some huge number, nine, maybe) into the store to get their shoes for school. Before anything else happened, before any measuring or trying on, she lined them all up like the Von Trapp children in the Sound of Music. Then she went right down the line with a switch and gave them all a swat on the backside.

“Of course, they all protested that they hadn’t done anything,” the Fletcher shoe lady said. “To which the mother replied, ‘No, but you’re all going to.'”

That, for the Fletcher shoe lady, was the epitome of good child raising. I wonder whenever I remember it, if my mother remembers that story, too.

I didn’t like the Fletcher shoe lady. But I never said so. Until now.

There is another association I have with Fletcher’s shoes. Jimmy Fletcher. I’m not sure how he was related to the Fletcher shoe family. But I’m sure he must have been.

My junior year in High School I liked this girl, Colleen. I was morbidly afraid to call girls. (You can read about why here.) I finally got up the nerve to call her. She was the one girl I ever called my whole time in high school. I used the upstairs phone. I took it into the closet. With a flashlight. I closed the door.

She said she wasn’t interested in going out with me. She was keeping her options open for Jimmy Fletcher. Shit.

I still miss being fitted for shoes. It’s probably why I never go into shoe stores any more unless I really have to. Most of the time Brooke buys my shoes and brings them home, which is the next best thing. She knows that I’m a 9½ and she has a much better sense of style than I do.

Even though I felt awful about being passed over for Jimmy Fletcher at the time, he saved me from ending up with Colleen. It would have been a mistake for me to end up with someone could fall in love with Jimmy Fletcher.

And I’d never have gotten on the trajectory where I ended up with Brooke, who saves me from having to go into the crappy places that pass as shoe stores nowadays.

2 thoughts on “Buying Shoes

  1. I have the exact same shoe-store memories you’ve described. It was nice. The model then was that if a store “did everything” for their customers, the customers would come back. The problem was/is that money is a bigger driver of business than service. If a business owner can offer the same shoes (or shoes generally) for $5 less than the other guy, it’s sure to attract more business. To do that, the owner axes a few jobs. If the service downside means that the customer picks out and tries on his own shoes, no biggie. Because for everyone who thinks “This is great being waited on, measured, and advised,” another person is thinking “Jesus, I wish this guy would hurry up! Why won’t he just show me what he’s got and I’ll point and say ‘That one,’ and I can get out of here?” (I know, because I’m that guy.)

    The exact same has happened to grocery stores. Now, if you want to get out of there quickly, you have to ring up your own stuff through the self-checkout and self-bag too, because they’ve axed jobs to lower costs, which drives business. Availability and speed drives business much more than service. And I can sympathize. I don’t want to spend one second more than I have to in either a shoe store or a grocery store.

    • I get that cost reduction is driving the shoe sales business. I think Bernadette’s point was that if a store owner wants me to buy shoes, there has to be some real service. A place like that could probably charge me the extra $5 for the shoes because I’d just go there without comparison shopping for price. Because when I really care about getting shoes (which is, admittedly, not often), what I’m looking for someone to help me find what I want, which is about service, not price point. If it weren’t for Brooke, I’d get my shoes at a 2nd hand store. But I get that it works for people who don’t care about the service. And, there needs to be some flexibility. Getting measured if you already know your size, for example, should be optional.

      On the grocery self-checkout, I can’t see how those things make money. I guess they must, or they wouldn’t still be there. But every time I attempt one of those, I get stuck. I’m sure they lose money when I go through them. The damn thing doesn’t register that I put something in the bag, or the card reader malfunctions, or the produce scale. They have to send someone over to check me out at the self-checkout.

      Don’t get behind me in a self-checkout line unless you want to be waiting a half hour. It always strikes me as an exercise in futility.

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