When Nate Roberts persuaded his son-in-law to come to work at his landmark Minneapolis shoe store in 1982, he figured the store had maybe 10 to 15 years of life left.
Thirty-two years later, Mark Simon will shut down his family’s enduring anchor in the Chicago and Lake neighborhood after 77 years.
Roberts Shoe Store, which survived a lagging local economy and the closure of the giant Sears warehouse, will not be part of the massive revitalization sweeping the neighborhood.
“I feel like the guy that’s dancing with tears in his eyes,” Simon said Monday, the day after putting up going-out-of-business signs on Lake Street’s third-oldest retailer.
Roberts Shoes gained its reputation by adhering to its trademark slogan: “Hardly a foot we can’t fit.” Despite numerous adaptations to its business plan, Simon said business has plateaued as it faced increased pressure from Internet sales and mall retailers. He said he is closing when he can do it on his own terms.
“We are not under duress of any kind. We don’t owe anybody money. We’re not under some banker’s thumb,” he said.
He said he kept going in part to keep the staff of 10 employed. One salesman has spent 48 years with the business, and others have sold shoes for decades.
“I’m 62 and I’m one of the younger employees,” Simon said.
He will continue to manage the three-story building that houses the store, and work with other family members in the real estate business.
When Roberts cobbled together money to buy one of the stores of a bankrupt shoe company, he saw two prime advantages. One was a great location at the intersection of two streetcar lines, where thousands came to shop or work at the nearby sprawling Sears complex. The other was the knowledge of salesmanship he had picked up working at Kaplan’s, a work-clothing store then on Franklin Avenue.
He quickly saw a business niche by stocking hard-to-find widths and sizes. During World War II, when shoes were rationed, the Polish immigrant used connections to find them. Gradually, the store expanded into neighboring storefronts.
Simon studied anthropology and pre-veterinary medicine in college. While waiting for vet school, he resumed work in the family grocery wholesaling business and discovered he liked business.
Later, Roberts recruited him to sell shoes.
Selling shoes taught him to be flexible. At the time, Roberts specialized in family dress shoes. But Simon learned to stock the increasingly popular Air Jordans and other high-end sneakers that drew young people. When Internet sales grew popular, he jumped in and sold large volumes of Converse and other shoes before online retailers with far bigger ad budgets saw the potential. He also added athletic clothing.
Roberts grew into a store that carried footwear ranging from thigh-high suede boots to steel-toed work boots. It added slip-resistant shoes, drawing immigrants who worked in restaurants. Simon hired two clerks from Cuba and another from Mexico to cater to them.
But there were factors Roberts could not control. A bus strike hurt walk-in sales. The reconstruction of Lake Street slowed business for several years. The addition of dozens of shoe stores at the Mall of America dried up his Saturday sales. Still, Roberts weathered the dark decade between the closing of Sears in 1994 and the rebirth of the redeveloped complex a decade later.
“It was like a breath of fresh air. The whole vibe on the street changed,” Simon said.
Sales improved for several years, then plateaued.
“We anguished,” Roberts said. “It took many years to come to this decision.”
Simon remains encouraged about Lake Street, however. The store’s closure over the next three months leaves two specialty stores that draw from wide geography as Lake’s oldest retailers. Schatzlein Saddle Shop dates to 1907, while Ingebretsen’s, which dates to 1921, offers Scandinavian gifts and foods. The Lund’s store that opened in 1939 under the Hove’s name now becomes the Lake strip’s third-oldest business.
As shoppers streamed into Roberts on Monday, some, like 30-year customer Xavier Campbell, expressed shock over the planned closing. He came for the quality, the styles and prices he described as reasonable. Some lapsed customers returned, too. Kerry Hansen, 44, grew up nearby and said his mother bought him his first pair of shoes there.
Meanwhile, Simon will sell shoes as long as the inventory lasts.
When one customer called a salesman to inquire about whether one shoe was still in stock, Simon knew who was calling simply by the shoe.
He told another salesman to tell a customer to make an offer for the red pair of size 22 Converse high up on one display wall.
Meanwhile, employees like Ken Lerczak, with 30 years on the job, saw the closing coming. “We wondered how much longer Mark could hold on,” he said.