*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 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.