Before the plane, train or automobile, before even the bicycle or the boat, humans walked for transportation. (Some of us still do). Believe it or not, when my Live Local journey began, shoe shopping became a major concern. I fully admit: Part of my late teens and early ‘20s revolved around the stereotypical American female habit of trying to outdo Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection. Even before my Live Local pledge, I started asking: Why am I spending money on poorly made, even if fabulously looking, shoes that hurt my feet? Then I injured my Achilles and could no longer wear high heels. And it might have been the best thing that could have happened.
As a result, I stopped buying lots of shoes and started concentrating on Birkenstocks. Then I bought a pair of Berks that fell apart in a year. What? What had happened to the beautiful, wonderful Old World craftsmanship I loved? No way was I spending that kind of money on shoes that fall apart in a year!
I switched to Doc Martins. Then a pair of Docs fell apart in eight months (I am rough on shoes). Docs had outsourced to Asia. WTF? I had to come up with a plan.
Meanwhile, the male half of our household was having a crisis of conscience related to shoes. Let me set the stage:
A decade ago when we collided, Jock still worked in the film industry as a gaffer. So, he was on his feet 12 to 18 hours a day. In between movie gigs he was doing that peanut-sheller thing. He was in his mid-50s, and through trial and error he realized the only way he could do this without destroying his knees was to wear Dr. Sholl’s shoes, because they had such great support. So, he wanders around the world in black Dr. Scholl’s velcro shoes, and I stopped teasing him about them when we met Noam Chomsky, who happened to wear the same shoes.
“Yeah, I guess he puts a bag over his head and goes to Walmart, too,” Jock responded when I pointed this out to him.
Aaah, there’s the rub—Walmart. We searched high, we searched low, we could not find Jock’s shoes anywhere other than … Walmart. They were the only thing he bought, but it was just a point of serious defeat that we couldn’t find them for sale anywhere else. But his knees and feet were not something we were prepared to sacrifice, so this continued…
And I kept looking for other options.
When my Doc Martins fell apart, I started looking for a pair of close-toed winter shoes. It was the middle of the year within my Live Local challenge, and I was determined not to buy from a chain store and to buy American-made if possible. Oddly enough, The Small Farm Journal led me to my solution. It is really, really hard to find “Made in the USA” shoes. I always thought of handmade shoes as prohibitively expensive (thousands of dollars) and really a status symbol, not really a practical item. While leafing through the ads in The Small Farm Journal, I saw several leather workers who made shoes by hand. I sent off for info from one or two and discovered that for $100 or $250 I could get a pair of shoes made to fit my feet—by a person who had been doing this for years. Obviously, if I wanted something very elaborate and showy, it would get more expensive very quickly, but for something serviceable, it would be about the price of a pair of Birkenstocks or Doc Martins.
Now, regular readers of this column have figured out I can’t just buy something easily. I research purchases, sometimes for months at a time. I planned to purchase the last pair of closed-toe shoes I would buy in this lifetime, and I was damn well going to find something for which I could feel proud. After months of looking, I finally found a family of shoemakers in California who hand-make leather footwear. Nativearth have been the answer to my prayers. After much trepidation, hemming and hawing, I finally made a commitment, and got a two-button ankle boot from them. Not only are they the best-made shoes I had ever owned—and cost less than a pair of Birkenstocks—but they are the first pair of shoes that did not give me blisters when I got them. They are so comfortable, I have fallen asleep wearing them. From a woman who takes her shoes off as soon as she get home, in a car or gets to work, that is quite a statement.
Immediately I offered to get a pair made for Jock for his birthday. “Your feet are important, sweetheart,” I pointed out. “They are worth the investment.”
He looked at me calmly for a moment, trying to formulate an answer that would be considerate but also realistic. “I don’t want to mix concrete or weld in a pair of shoes that cost more than $20.”
Fair enough, I conceded.
“I would set them on fire within a week,” he added.
I mentally flashed to the scorched holes in his socks and shirts and realized he had a point. But we still needed to resolve this Walmart issue—and here was a family owned, made-in-the-USA shoe solution!
In the next three years, we attempted to get Jock shoes from Sears, Payless and even direct form China. Sears had the bait and switch; they advertised exactly what Jock was looking for, but of course didn’t have it in stock, despite offering to ship it to him if he paid for it in the store. What arrived was not what he was promised and we began again.
By surprise he found something similar at Payless but was told he couldn’t order additional pairs. “What kind of business model is this?” he demanded. “I am a paying customer and I like a product you carry; what do you mean I can’t order more of your merchandise?”
“It’s down right un-American!” I quipped, in an effort to make him laugh when we were back in the car. Then, in an effort to put his knees, feet and needs above my own selfish desires, I offered the ultimate concession. “Have you tried asking your friend, ‘Amy,’ at the factory in China if you could import shoes directly from there? If we got a case… that could last a while. It would be worth it, I guess.”
He was quiet, which told me he realized how much this cost me to offer this as a solution. At dinner a week later he mentioned in passing that he was not successful with the attempt to get shoes through Amy.
In the meantime, it looks like Sketchers has something comparable to the Dr. Scholl’s shoes and Jock has gotten four pairs form them. They seem to be working, though not quite as well.
Three years after the purchase of my boots, I have gotten a pair of summer sandals from Nativearth. Face it, leather boots in Wilmington in the summer are a horrid idea. Tomilinson’s flip-flops helped me get by, but four pairs a year at $16 a pair made me realize that for the price of two years worth of shoes from Tomlinson’s I could get one really comfortable, wonderful supportive pair of sandals, made with love and care by people who love what they do—and not from a factory in China.
When I placed my order for the sandals, I mentioned that the shoes I bought from them a few years back were the best pair of shoes I ever owned. The family sent back a note saying they were pleased I was enjoying the boots and that my sandals would be ready in about two weeks.
Jock still won’t let me get him a pair from the Nativearth world, but at least he no longer shares a private shame with Noam Chomsky.