77 Years of Shoes

Roberts Shoe Store
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

*This story won an award for best radio feature (3rd place) from the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, 2015.*

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.

Dancing over 50

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.