Elegy For The Mom And Pop Shoe Store: A Back To School Reflection

by John Davis Jr.
Originally Published: 

The only customer service received at Nameless is from the high-school-aged, gum-smacking cashiers who wouldn’t be able to make change without a computer. Managers are nowhere in sight, undoubtedly hiding from parents and guardians who might actually have questions. My sons will decide on shoes that are obnoxiously colorful, the fastest looking, or the most like what they think friends will be wearing. I will box the purchases myself and take them to the front, where alas, I will buy them.

I hate this experience, because I remember back-to-school shoe shopping that was an actual experience. In the ’80s, my grandparents always took us to Mitchell’s Shoe Store—a good hour’s drive from our rural hometown. There, Mr. Mitchell had been selling all types of footwear to customers since World War II. He had a few friendly clerks that he’d personally trained to use the shoe sizer, a shiny metal and oddly shaped contraption with sliding levers to help make certain you were properly fitted.

These same clerks always seemed personally interested in what you’d be doing in school during the year ahead: Were you most excited about PE? Here, let us get you our latest athletic model and see how you like it. Often, Mr. Mitchell himself would serve you, straddling one of the many stools in the store with a rubber-treaded ramp on its front. His white hair and big smile were Santa-like, and his demeanor was that of a favorite uncle. He tied shoes without looking, conversing instead with the customer. Does that feel right? Walk around in them a bit.

Shoe buying took about an hour for both me and my sister, but it was an enjoyable 60 minutes. During one especially memorable trip, I emerged with Lone Ranger running shoes, slick silver numbers with the face of the hero on each side. Around the shoe’s mouth, a cursive blue lasso-type font gave the name of the show, which had experienced a renaissance of sorts during the Reagan era. I ran so hard and so fast in them that the face of the Lone Ranger slowly faded from the chin up, leaving nothing but a masked and hatted white silhouette.

Like the Lone Ranger, shoe stores like Mitchell’s are long gone where I live. I know that my sons will never have a smiling salesman that lingers in their memories, nor will they recall the cold tickle of the shoe sizer’s slide against their socked arches. The shoes we buy will be decimated by December, just in time for holiday sales to replace them. Still, a piece of me demands this tradition—back-to-school shoe buying is something everyone should do, no matter how slipshod customer service may be.

The storefront where Mitchell’s used to be is now a hair salon, I think. It was hard to tell when I went by a few weeks ago—on the big windows out front, there were badly painted pictures of women’s heads with different hairdos, but there were also poster ads for some upcoming concerts and maybe local boxing matches. Also, one of the many signs out front said something about “palm readings,” so, who can tell what they’re peddling? I didn’t hazard a trip inside.

In the end, I suppose that shoes are a small matter compared to today’s larger educational concerns. With Common Core, standardized testing and teacher certification requirements dominating the headlines, my sons’ choices in footwear should probably hold less sway over my thoughts.

Yet I still can’t help remembering a place in time where there was a relationship that meant more than a purchase. People conversed, the air was scented by genuine leather, and you left there with a sense of pride and accomplishment. So I bid a fond adieu to Mitchell’s and stores like it. The bittersweet time has come for another 21st century school year’s shopping. Hi-ho, Silver, away.

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