When her five children asked Lenore Olson how she wanted to celebrate her 90th birthday (on March 14), "I told them to keep it simple and fun. I said, 'Right at the store. That's where I spend a lot of time."
"A lot of time" might be an understatement — Olson has been working at Bermel's Shoes in Randall, Minn., since 1971. At the time, she was facing a summer layoff from the town's grocery store. As she walked down the street, she saw the then-owner of Bermel's polishing the front door. As the two women chatted, the owner said, "We're going to have to hire some help around here." Olson was on the job within a week.
She started out selling mostly the men's work boots that are Bermel's specialty. One of Olson's secrets: "I always have them take both shoes off. People don't realize everyone has one foot bigger than the other. Sometimes it doesn't make a difference. Sometimes it's a lot."
Olson's responsibilities aren't limited to selling shoes — she's also responsible for creating the store's window displays. "Sometimes I get in the window and I don't have an idea in my head," she admitted. "I go to the shelf and start pulling down shoes and something comes to me." One July, she hung a blank sheet and put up pictures of people from Randall. "Pretty soon people were going back to their house and bringing us things to display. It turned out to be a real special window for the Fourth of July."
The winter holiday display has a long-standing tradition: "We start by putting out Christmas merchandise — things you'd give somebody, like slippers and warm gloves. Then the week before Christmas we take out everything commercial and put in the manger scene. I even put hay on the bottom of the store window."
Olson also writes the store's radio ads and records them at the WYRQ studios in Little Falls or Brainerd. Some of the ads dispense advice: "Do your feet hurt, and you have good shoes? Did the clerk measure both feet?" Others have a seasonal theme. "I have one where I talk about warm clothes — that's a real good one.," she said. Recently, she recorded a spot that anticipates the end of winter: "Spring is on the way. Do you have your running shoes? You want to get in shape, don't you?"
On approaching her 90th birthday, Olson said, "In my mind, when I think about my age, I am maybe 35 years old. I've slowed down, but I don't ever question that I can't do it. I usually try, and then all of a sudden I think, 'Let's take it a little easy.' I can take care of myself. I mow my own lawn, do my own cooking and housework. I never think that it is a problem."
Olson plans to keep working "as long as they'll have me. … With my husband gone — he passed away 21 years ago — it would be no fun to go places without him. I've never found anyone who was a good looking man and a good lover like he was."
Her advice to those who want to be hale and hearty at 90: "Take care of yourself and pray to the good Lord that He'll take care of you."
Laura French is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.