Street Talk

Walking a mile in the customers shoes

October 1, 2012
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In the early hours of Thursday morning, a crowd of faithful, elderly customers stood outside Van Hoecks Shoes in downtown Grand Rapids, waiting for the doors to open.

Instead of celebrating 70 years of business in October, Van Hoecks Shoes will be closing those doors for good.

Reporter Mike Nichols stopped by to find out what drew longtime customers to the shoe store at 95 Monroe Center NW that has been a downtown landmark for generations of Michigan shoppers. Known for its specialty shoes, wide range of sizes and quality service, the store built a loyal following of customers familiar with its shoe-fitting service, said owner Greg Clarin.

Clarin said the current generation has lost interest in shoe service and custom fit, which contributed to Van Hoecks’ loss of business. In the end, the only customers still coming back are older people who grew up with such service, he said.

“In their younger days, (shoes were fitted) by length, width and arch because everything was made in America,” Clarin said. “As we moved away from that and started having everything made in China, they only tried to make shoe sizes based on length and hit the 85 percent demographic. We still target the 15 percent. … We couldn’t target a younger customer under the Van Hoecks name because a young person doesn’t want to shop at the same place as their parents or grandparents.”

When Van Hoecks announced its going-out-of-business sale, which continues this week, the normally empty store soon was buzzing with customers from all over the state, many lamenting the passing of the only place many of them shop for shoes.

“We’re the only store in the state of Michigan that services in narrow shoes for women and men,” Clarin said. “Customers come from all over — Detroit, Lansing, Benton Harbor, Muskegon. People (make a) pilgrimage to us, but there’s just not enough of them.”

For more than 40 years, Shirley Albers has been driving all the way from Muskegon to shop at Van Hoecks Shoes. Albers used to bring her mother and her brother, both of whom had wide feet, saying she never shopped at a place with better shoe comfort or service.

“I started bringing my mother here in the 1960s. Even when she was in a wheelchair with Alzheimer's, she wanted shoes here,” Albers said. “I’m sad to see this place go. This was a place you knew you could always get something to fit and you knew it was good quality.”

Clarin said over the years the store’s staff has become such experts on feet, they have even debated foot doctors when customers are sent in with orthotics. Doctors can tell you what’s wrong with your foot, but they can’t fit the foot, Clarin said.

“There’s a definite need in our city for people who want their shoes to fit properly, and when you do that, you have to have a big inventory,” he said. “The mall will carry a shoe in seven sizes. We might carry a shoe in 60 sizes.”

Longtime customer Johnny Johnson said he has been coming to Van Hoecks for about 15 years, and he has 15 pairs of shoes to prove it.

“I got a lot of play in this one,” Johnson said as his feet slipped into a slick pair of black Johnston and Murphy’s wingtips. “This is my favorite shoe. But this place is closing down,” Johnson continued. “Where can I find these shoes now?”

Tell all

The bitter legal battle between Meijer and the town of Acme, outside of Traverse City, over placement of a huge development in the sleepy crossroads town drew plenty of local attention from 2006-2008. Now, it’s the subject of a Harper’s Magazine article in this month’s edition.

The story, which covers a lot of old ground  familiar to locals, is written by Alec MacGillis, senior editor of The New Republic and a former reporter for The Washington Post. As usual, Meijer officials refused to comment, Acme officials (for the most part) teed off on Meijer officials, and everyone laments a lost opportunity for the area.

But what’s new in MacGillis’ article is this: “One person spoke freely: Ginny Seyferth, of Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson.”

Seyferth, whose firm was PR counsel for Meijer during the dustup, does offer some insight into the litigious situation and defends her firm’s position in the melee, which makes the article worth reading.

Said Tim Wondergem, from rival PR firm Wondergem Consulting: “Now that was interesting …”

Bank on it

Students at Alger Middle School in Grand Rapids will get a real-world lesson in finance, beginning tomorrow, when the state’s second official “in-school” bank opens.

Established as an innovative way to offer young students early training in financial literacy, the School Bank Program provides a “hands on” banking experience that helps kids understand the value of money.

The “School Bank” will be operated by students who receive an introduction to banking-related functions while being supervised by school staff. All students will be encouraged to open their own savings account and incentives will be distributed for deposits made to the School Bank.

Heart of West Michigan United Way and PNC Bank partnered with Alger Middle School to offer the ground-breaking learning opportunity — one of only two in-school banks in Michigan.

“We're teaching kids about money and the responsibilities that go along with it," said Brenda Brame, manager of United Way’s Kent County Tax Credit Coalition. “We realize the importance of financial literacy, and this program is key to developing these skills at an early age.”

Building blocks

Thursday is the Academy Awards of the local constsruction industry. The Michigan Contractor of the Year Award (MCOY), as bestowed by the American Subcontractors Association of Michigan, will be given during the annual celebration from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Goei Center.

The award is given to a contractor based on voting by those who work for and with them — the subcontractors. Basically, it’s a chance for the smaller outfits to grade the area’s major contractors on a number of categories.

This year’s finalists include The Christmas Co., Dan Vos Construction Co., Elzinga & Volkers, Erhardt Construction, Owen-Ames-Kimball and Pioneer Construction.

Check out Twitter and Facebook Thursday night, or grbj.com Friday morning, to find out who took home this year’s top honor. Because like any good awards show, it’s a secret right up until the winner is announced.

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