Originally published in Business Digest, December 1998

Horn Bares His Soles

by Julia Lynam

It started with those funky Earthshoes that were all the rage back in the '70s. You remember them, don't you? Solid, clumpy shoes with the heels sloping backward. Irwin and Maria Horn were looking for a ticket out of Brooklyn: "People were moving out of New York to places like Albuquerque, New Mexico, and to Vermont," Irwin recalls. "I didn't like the desert, so we decided to move north."

Over the years, their original Earthshoe store evolved into The Shoe Horn on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace. The Horns live in Shelburne with their 13-year-old son, David, who, despite the large stock of high-quality leather shoes in his father's store, likes to wear sneakers.

Irwin Horn Irwin Horn of The Shoe Horn has been a fixture of downtown Burlington since 1972. "I think Imelda Marcos has done more for the shoe industry than any advertising," he jokes. Horn's Church Street store sells socks, hats and bags in addition to footwear. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"Earthshoes were very popular in the '70s," Horn explains. "The company's first shop in Manhattan had opened up on Earth Day. It was a- great product and we were among the first 10 Earthshoe shops outside New York City."

The arrangement could hardly be called a franchise, he says, written as it was on a single sheet of paper, but it served its purpose. Horn opened his store in 1972 on the second floor at the corner of Bank and St. Paul streets in downtown Burlington. He's been a downtown presence ever since, moving in 1975 to the College Street location now occupied by the Everyday Bookshop, and in 1982 to his current shop, The Shoe Horn, at 61 Church St., in the middle of the marketplace.

He's seen a lot of changes downtown: "Fifteen years ago downtown Burlington was the mecca of shopping, retail and office space in Chittenden County," he says. "If people really wanted to shop, downtown was the place. But with the move of office space to the suburbs and the rise of other ways of purchasing, like mail order and the Internet, there's been a big change in the way people shop."

What Burlington has gained, Horn says, is a reputation as a tourist destination. In the past people just traveled through Burlington on their way to somewhere else. "Now it's a destination spot," he says, commenting that this fall brought large numbers of people from England and Scotland to visit Burlington. "I think it's because the media have been promoting Vermont as one of the best places in the country to live, and a very safe place to visit," he says.

Do tourists buy shoes? "Some do," he says with a shrug. Tourism is definitely a trend Horn applauds and he'd like to see the state do more to attract summer and fall visitors.

While stores come and go in Burlington and Church Street, some, like The Shoe Horn, persist. "You have to roll with the punches," Horn says. "Being here myself six days a week is really important. I listen to what the customers want." He sees a lot of repeat business, a lot of customer loyalty: "One of the things we really stress is friendliness and service," Horn says. "In a big-box store, you don't see a face behind the product."

It's challenging: "There are many new stores opening up and a finite number of people to shop at them. There just aren't that many bodies out there." Competition in the shoe market has always been keen, he points out, with many places to buy shoes on Church Street. One such place, Feet Street at 97 Church St. since the mid-'80s, is also owned by Horn. "It's totally different merchandise," he says, "for a younger clientele."

Staffing can also be challenging, as a small, independent store can't offer the same benefits as the larger chains. Gone are the days when staff stayed in one job for 30 years. Horn relies largely on the friendly atmosphere of the store to help attract and retain employees. Staff member Peggy Mentes, who's worked at the Shoe Horn for two years, says, "They get a feel when they come in that it's a good place to work." The Shoe Horn has seven employees, most of them part-time.

Horn keeps closely in touch with the shoe fashion industry, trying to buy the brands and styles customers will be looking for. Back in the '70s, when Earthshoes was acquired by a large shoe manufacturer and it became more and more difficult to obtain the shoes, he began to sell other brands such as Birkenstock. "We changed the product mix," he says, "and moved more in the direction of fashion.

"We stock high-quality shoes," he continues, "and we try to be somewhat different. We try to get the unusual, but still be relevant to Burlington."

The quest for something different occupies a lot of Horn's time and calls for careful attention to buying, including a trip to Las Vegas every February for the biggest trade shoe of the year. The result is an eclectic mix of items, including luxurious German and Italian leather shoes and boots that fit like gloves; clogs ("which are really big right now") from Anna, Saga and Stegman; Havana Joe footwear; Technica apres ski boots; Timberland, NAOT and BCBG shoes. Some of these brands, he says, you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else in Vermont.

The Shoe Horn also carries accessories, including fleece and velour socks, smart felt hats, and leather bags. "Hats have been big for about four years now," says Horn. "There are so many hats on the market, you really can find something different."

Shoes are more than just footwear: To some people, and not just shoe shop owners, they're a way of life. "I think Imelda Marcos has done more for the shoe industry than any advertising," Horn quips. "I kid around with some of my customers and tell them their middle name must be Imelda!

"Shoes mean different things to different people," he continues. "To some they're just protection from the elements; to others they're a reflection of personality. Some people will wear mundane clothes, and then add outrageous shoes in fuchsia or silver. That's where their real personality comes out."

One friend and fellow merchant uses the word "outrageous" to describe Horn. "To call him a 'character' doesn't go far enough," says Frank Bouchett, co-owner of the Pier One Imports franchise on Church Street. "One of his favorite things is shocking people. But besides being a real character, Irwin's a very generous person."

He's been a fixture on Church Street for more than 15 years, Bouchett continues, "And to survive as an independent merchant you have to be resourceful and creative; you have to be able to break outside the mold and do things differently. He's a good buyer and a very creative merchant."

His comments are echoed by another longtime downtown merchant, Nan Patrick, whose clothing store has stood at the corner of College Street and South Winooski Avenue since 1980. "When I first opened the store, Irwin was already on College," she recalls. "He was so kind and welcoming and polite, I didn't realize how funny he was until one day after a big Downtown Burlington Business Association dinner: We went back to someone's house and Irwin demolished an entire box of matzos.

"He's made a great niche for himself in the community and has really done his downtown duty, serving as president of the DBDA at one stage."

Horn is keenly aware of the challenges facing independent retailers and he's concerned about the future of the Church Street Marketplace. "There are still a lot of independents but the nationals are encroaching on the locals," he says. "Rents are getting high and it's becoming more difficult for the independents.

"Church Street is in a state of flux; it's trying to feel its way. I'd like to see more individuality -- for it not to become Anywhere, USA. The vitality of the street depends on the individuality and personality of the shops. I wouldn't want to go anywhere in Vermont other than Burlington. This type of store and merchandise has to be downtown."

Mentes echoes his concerns. She and her husband, Jack, moved to Vermont from Connecticut two years ago "because we hated what was happening there. We were looking for a place with an active downtown." Now she fears the same changes are happening in Burlington. "I don't like to see the chains coming in. People don't come here for chain stores," she says.

Mentes' preference in shoes ranges from the funky to the classic, depending on her mood, but comfort is high on the agenda. "But, happily, nowadays you can have a good-looking shoe that's comfortable," she says. Horn favors Doc Martens and Havana Joes for himself, but the best shoes in the store, he says, are the soft leather styles made by Germany's Peter Kaiser. "People come back for more of those," he says. "They're easy to sell. It gives people pleasure to try them on and it gives me pleasure to sell them."