Shoe shopping in a pandemic world

Measuring the foot. (Photo by Violet Snow)

Before going to the mall to buy a pair of winter shoes, I should’ve checked to make sure the store still existed. For years, I’ve been shopping at Shoe Dept., where the footwear is plentiful and affordable, and customer service is practically nonexistent, which I don’t mind. You’re free to try on whatever you want.

But when I arrived, I discovered that, like most of the stores at the Hudson Valley Mall, Shoe Dept. had closed. The flagship stores started shutting down years ago, and I’m sure the pandemic hastened the demise of smaller businesses like Shoe Dept. I wandered through the hush of the wide hallways with a handful of people, staring at old photos of Kingston plastered over the storefronts, alternating with cheerful pictures of families playing in autumn leaves. Overhead, ads for fall in the Hudson Valley exhorted me to have a glorious season, oblivious to the reality of the nearly dead mall.

Not that the mall was ever a soulful place, but there’s something unnerving about a vast building, open to the public, that appears to have outlived its usefulness. I’ve read the current owners have some kind of plan. Maybe after the virus has fallen from the headlines, they’ll start putting it into effect.

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I walked the length of each corridor, just in case there was still a Payless Shoe Store lurking at the end of a hallway. Instead I found a unisex hair salon, with half a dozen customers waiting on chairs in the hall. According to the mall website, there are still sixteen businesses open, including two opticians, two medical offices, a parkour school, three stores selling sports clothing. But there’s a whole lot of space between them for pictures of fall foliage.

I looked through the shoes at Dick’s Sporting Goods, but they didn’t have what I wanted. Target’s shoes have always looked uncomfortable and bound to fall apart after three wearings, and a quick glance suggested the situation has not changed. Don’t get me wrong, I love Target. I buy most of my clothes in thrift shops, but I do get my jeans from Target, in the men’s department, where the pants have deeper pockets. But Target is not the place to buy shoes.

When my stomach growled, I decided to see if there was anything left of the food court. Only one shop remains, East Wok, where I got a pretty good egg roll and an equally tasty shrimp roll. I sat at one of the dozen tables scattered a safe six, or maybe twelve, feet apart in the space that used to be crammed with tables. A lone teenage boy pushed a cart of cleaning equipment around the court while I ate, across the room from a young couple and no one else.

If I’d known about DSW (Designer Shoe Warehouse) in the Kings Mall down the road, I would’ve gone there. The Kings Mall has mysteriously flourished, with Marshalls and Mother Earth anchoring a much smaller building footprint, while the HV Mall has come to resemble a ghost town. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation…but back to shoe shopping.

The next day, I went to Pegasus in Woodstock. For the first time anywhere in decades, a saleswoman offered to measure my feet. She had me stand on one of those black and silver metal foot measuring devices with curving heel stops and size markings. (I’m a size 8, in case you’re curious.) Most of the fine shoes at Pegasus are a bit beyond my budget, but I got a comfy pair of Merrells there years ago, and they had one on the shelf. Alas, the store was out of stock in my size. The closest style was just not right. The saleswoman did say they might have my size at another Pegasus branch, but I didn’t ask her to check.

I was heading for Montano’s, which is located in Saugerties, a 45-minute drive from my house, so it wasn’t at the top of my list. But performance artist Linda Mary Montano had once told me the store had been in her family for several generations, and there’s a bit of shoe business in my own family background. My grandfather managed a series of Thom McAn stores in the 1930s. A smart Scotsman had manufactured sturdy shoes in a limited number of styles, selling them cheaply and in large quantities during the Depression, at stores named after Scottish golfer Thomas McCann. In the 1950s, the chain was acquired by Melville Corporation, which became the largest shoe retailer in the U.S. My grandfather was promoted to buyer, purchasing everything but the shoe materials: paper products, office supplies, even colorful markers for CEO Frank Melville to take on his trips to the Himalayas to research the flow of glaciers. 

In later years, the company diversified, buying clothing stores and pharmacies, including a tiny chain called Consumer Value Stores. Eventually Melville sold off everything but the drugstores and morphed into the giant CVS. But when I was a kid, my mother always bought my shoes at Thom McAn because of my grandfather’s connection. So I have a warm feeling about the idea of a family shoe business.

I had been looking around the store for approximately one minute when a young woman offered to measure my feet. Montano’s not only has those foot measurers, it has stools with slanted, corrugated footrests. I had spotted a Merrell on the shelf, so I asked if a pair was available in my size. “Oh, yes,” she said and came back in 30 seconds with a box. She whipped out a shoehorn and expertly slipped my feet into the shoes.

“Too tight,” I said.

“The length is right. Let’s try a wider size.”

“You have that?”

“Oh, yes.”

The second pair fit perfectly. But she wouldn’t let me buy them without an inspection by the boss. “You must be a Montano,” I said to the wavy-haired man who pressed on the sides and toes of the shoes. 

“Yes,” he said. “So is she.”

“I’m a daughter-in-law,” the young woman, Anica, explained.

I told her I couldn’t find any Merrells in my size at other establishments, and she said there’s a shoe shortage since the pandemic, with delays in fulfillment of orders. “I see, but your store is so big, you have a lot of stock,” I said, and she nodded. She asked if I wanted to wear the shoes out of the store, another custom from childhood that has gone by the wayside, but I said no.

After I paid, instead of offering me a bag, Anica wrapped a slender cotton string several times around the box and tied a knot. I walked out, contented, with my fingers slipped under the string.

There are 2 comments

  1. Bill H

    Montano’s is a great shoe store. We buy nearly all our shoes there. Not only do they always have what we need in stock and excellent customer service, but their prices are the same as the larger corporate stores (although Montano’s does not stock the knock-offs that are very cheap in the big stores).

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