Sunlight pours across the century-old floorboards as a typewriter clicks out a personal note with each order. A rainbow of leather samples covers a brick wall. Charlie Parr croons through rubber-scented air.
This is the Lowertown St. Paul workshop of Ben Ransom, 34, a bearded, bespectacled, bullish bootmaker. His year-old business, Lanona Shoe Co., crafts American-made leather shoes the old-fashioned way.
We caught up with Ransom recently to talk shoes, the highs and lows of running a start-up and how his grandfather's advice influences his daily business.
Q: Where did the idea for Lanona come from?
A: After working in corporate settings since getting out of college, I decided I wanted to try something on my own. I had particular interest in the American-made movement and wanted to start a brand that could contribute to and benefit U.S. manufacturing. All I needed was a product.
Q: So why shoes?
A: I picked leather as a medium because of its lasting quality and how well it ages, then started researching. Fortunately, I met a shoemaker in Miami that had been making shoes — mostly in his garage — for 30 years. Then it just spiraled from there: hours of observing the shoemaking process, partnering with a design firm to hone in on the branding, learning the industry in more detail and testing designs that would eventually become the first Lanona shoes.
Q: What does Lanona mean?
A: Lanona is the combination of La Crosse and Winona. The name originated from a business my great-grandfather owned that was located on Hwy. 61 between the two cities. He had a rest stop and tavern called the La Nona Lodge that opened in the early 1900s.
Q: What's your company philosophy?
A: "Work hard, be honest" is something my grandfather always gave as advice growing up. It stuck with me. Since he's still going strong at 93, I knew I had to uphold this motto so that it was something he would be proud of too.
Q: Best thing about owning a shoemaking start-up?
A: Seeing someone in a pair of Lanona shoes or boots. It is incredibly rewarding to see all of the hours of work put into each style in action and having them walk out the door and be worn around town.
Q: Worst thing about owning a shoemaking start-up?
A: Sizing is probably the biggest hurdle for us right now. The fit has to be spot-on, and it can be difficult to manage this being primarily an online retailer (for now). Our focus is weighted heavily on customer service as we grow. The better our shoes fit, the more customers will wear them out and about.
Q: Who actually designs and makes the shoes?
A: Lanona works with a design firm out of Milwaukee called Ocupop. They've been instrumental in developing our brand and website [www.lanona.co], which have really shaped how we design our shoes. Both Ocupop and I design the shoes. As for constructing the shoes, I make the outsole material at the Lanona workshop in Lowertown. The leather work is completed by a factory in Maine and a shoemaker in Miami, depending on the style of shoe. We're proud to say that the whole process — from product design to on the foot — is generated right here in the U.S.A.