77 Years of Shoes

Roberts Shoe Store

Roberts Shoe Store co-owner Mark Simon holds up a photograph of his father-in-law, Nate Roberts, who founded Roberts Shoes in 1937

Roberts Shoe Store has been a fixture at the corner of Chicago and Lake Streets in Minneapolis for the last 77 years. But in November 2014, the store will be closing for good. This audio feature I produced for KFAI, tells the story of why the store is shuttering now and what it has meant to the people who’ve worked and shopped there for generations.

The day I reported this piece, I commented to the store’s co-owner, Mark Simon, that Roberts Shoes feels like a real place. “Well you’re definitely in a real place,” Mark replied. “We’ve got 77 years of history here.”

You can see evidence of that history tucked into the nooks of Mark’s upstairs office which is adorned with family photos and framed City Pages “best of” awards. As Mark and his wife Ricki Roberts have been preparing to shut things down, they’ve been sifting through old photos of Ricki’s late father Nate Roberts, who founded the store back in 1937.

Nate Roberts founder of Roberts Shoes

Nate Roberts in the early years of Roberts Shoe Store.

Nate Roberts was a Polish immigrant who came to America with very little formal education. As someone who knew the struggle of gaining a financial foothold in this country, Ricki says her father would hire anyone who needed a job and was willing to work. Some of the store’s employees are now in their 70s and 80s and have been at the store for decades.

It would be easy to cast Roberts Shoes as a casualty of modernity, and while that’s partly true, it’s not the whole story. Sure, they’ve struggled to compete with the likes of Zappos and Amazon, as well as the mighty Mall of America, but over the years, Roberts Shoes found creative ways to be the David against those Goliaths. For instance, Mark set up an online store in the late 1990s where he focused on stocking specialty items like saddle shoes that other retailers didn’t carry. Even today, he sells saddle shoes to customers all over the world.

Roberts Shoes was forged on being a neighborhood business. So many of us are lonely and also hungry for meaningful connections in the places where we actually live. Roberts Shoes has served as a reliable balm against that kind of isolation. To go there was to be known, seen, and also remembered.

As customer Steven Mckee told me, “They’ve always made me feel like I was LeBron James. I think that speaks volumes for a shoe store.” Indeed it does.

A meaningful recovery adventure

A meaningful recovery adventure

Erik after his shift. Because Erik is affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, his face and last name are purposefully not included in this story.

Back when I was working full time as a public radio producer in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I would sometimes eat lunch at a nearby diner. I liked going there with one of my colleagues when I was feeling low. It’s the kind of place that serves up comfort food like homemade pie and chicken noodle soup. I’d walk away from those lunches feeling a little more hopeful.

Over the years, I came to recognize one of the waiters there. I never knew his name, but his familiar and friendly presence was as much as fixture as the food.

Back in the winter, I stopped by in the late afternoon and sat at the counter. The familiar-looking waiter recognized me, and we started talking. I learned that his name is Erik and that he’d just returned from a road trip to Tennessee where he’d been volunteering in a prison through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These prison trips got started after Erik signed up to be a pen pal with a Tennessee inmate who’s also connected to AA. Over time, the relationship grew and Erik started visiting his pen pal. Erik has been sober for over six years now. He has been down to Tennessee seven times to share his recovery story with inmates there. He summed up these experiences as “a meaningful adventure.”

That day at the diner, Erik commended me for doing meaningful work as a public radio producer. I pushed back and told him to look around the restaurant. It was a winter day and the place was empty except for a few older people and a scattering of others on the 9-to-5 margins. I told Erik that these people count on the diner. It gives them a place to go, especially in the desolate winter, and that his reliable presence is an important part of the place. Those Tennessee inmates probably count on Erik, too. He’s choosing to drive over 12 hours to spend his vacations with them, and that very act says they matter.

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee is one of the prisons where Erik volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Erik.)

Editor’s note: This story originally aired on KFAI 90.3 FM on August 29, 2014 and was produced with support from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thanks to Catherine Winter for editorial support.

Dancing over 50

dancing over 50

Years ago when I was still living in New York City, I attended a support group meeting for older dancers who were figuring out what to do with their lives now that their performance careers were sun setting. I wasn’t a professional dancer, so I really had no business being there. I went because I was curious to hear from people who had discovered a passionate sense of purpose at a young age, but now had to say ‘goodbye to all that’ because their bodies were giving out. What would replace dance and performance in their lives? Would the remainder of their working years feel like a poor, thin shadow of what had come before?

I remember how one professional ballerina in the group had interviewed for a perfume-spritzing job at Bloomingdale’s. She talked about how the department store floor, with its dewy lights and shimmery mirrors, reminded her of being on stage. I found this depressing. Bloomingdale’s was a far cry from Lincoln Center in my mind.

I was reminded of this experience when I reported this recent story for KFAI about the 50+ project — a new performance initiative for dancers 50 and older. My friend, choreographer Marciano Silva dos Santos, came up with the idea of creating a brand new dance work specifically for older dancers. He’s only 35, but noticed that he rarely saw older dancers on stage here in Minnesota. Apparently things are different in Brazil where he grew up. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Marciano’s dance company, Contempo Physical Dance, which is producing the 50+ project.

A couple of weeks ago, I hung out with Marciano and the 50+ project dancers as they rehearsed the upcoming “Seca” (it means “drought in Portuguese). After rehearsal, I interviewed the dancers about what the experience has meant to them so far. The conversation was incredibly poignant and also surprising. For some, aging has been terrifically liberating in unexpected ways. Listen and learn. I know I did.

Editor’s note: A huge heap of thanks to Catherine Winter for her editorial guidance on this audio story.

Unlikely Entrepreneurs: Lawyer K.M. Davis on the power of authenticity

“Everyone who’s here really is authentic and kind of weird…and that’s what makes you want to work with them.” – K.M. Davis, Founder of Davis Law Office

K.M. Davis describes herself as a lawyer “who apparently doesn’t look like a lawyer.” In this clip, Davis talks about the power of authenticity and not hiding parts of yourself to fit in and please other people, especially at work.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Davis about her experiences as an unlikely entrepreneur at CoCo Minneapolis, where we’re both members and where Davis runs her firm Davis Law Office which is the only GLBT-certified law firm in Minnesota. Unlikely Entrepreneurs is an occasional live event series I started that features one-on-one interviews with people who became entrepreneurs unexpectedly and under unlikely circumstances. This is an experimental conversation project and I’m excited to see how it will evolve.

You can watch the full interview with Davis here. Many thanks to videographer Jeff Achen from CallSign51 for producing this video.

Abe of the desert

Abe Lackow

Abe Lackow has a voice of Brooklyn, or maybe the Bronx. It’s not a voice I expected to hear with such booming clarity in the heart of the Arizona desert.

I met Abe at on the outskirts of Tucson at a place called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I immediately noticed his bolo tie and turquoise-silver bracelet. Whatever stickball-playing, outer-borough New Yorker he’d might have once been, had given way to a newer Southwestern self. Abe was clearly thriving in this desert habitat.

I noticed that Abe was wearing a name tag that said “Docent.” He appeared to be some kind of park ranger. I had to find out what he was doing in this outdoor nature center, surrounded by cactuses and rattlesnakes.

Abe is now in his sunset years. He told me he’s always had a passion for “living things, breathing things…even plants.” These weren’t the fodder of his paid career, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Now Abe gets to spend his days talking to people about hummingbirds and snakes. And what could be better than that?

Abe Lackow

Me interviewing Abe Lackow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Photo credit: Nicki Adler.

Editor’s note: Another version of this story aired on Arizona Public Media’s “Arizona Spotlight” June 20, 2014. Many thanks as well to Britta Greene for lending her editorial ears to this story.

Music credit: “Desert Love” by Bandana Splits.

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