After 78 years in the business, the Allen brothers are retiring and closing the "old school" shoe store their father started.
Virgil and Jim Allen sold their last pair of boots on New Year's Eve, a pair of Redwing Pecos, size 9 D, and soon after closed the store their father opened in 1935.
Then it was the Dodge City Shoe Shop, where their father Sam practiced his trade as a cobbler, blocked and cleaned hats, and shined and dyed shoes. At 405 Second Ave., and five years at 409 Second Ave., Sam taught his sons how to repair shoes, how to run a business and how to be a part of a community.
They changed the name to Sam's Shoe Store in 1947, and moved to its final location at the corner of Second Avenue and Spruce Street in 1969 as their building was to be demolished as part of an urban renewal project.
Virgil said he couldn't begin to guess how many pairs of shoes they've sold since they added retail sales to the business in 1956.
"It's a lot," he said. "I've been fitting shoes for 60 years."
"Fitting shoes," he says, not "selling shoes," because they weren't in the shoe business, they were in the feet business. Anyone can take a credit card and sell a pair of boots, but it takes time and expertise to make sure to get it right, and it's important because avoiding pain and work injury over a long time starts with properly fitting shoes.
"My dad taught us, 'If you're going to do something, do it right. Don't mess around,'" Virgil said.
"People come back to you to get fitted right, not just to put something on their feet."
It's a lesson he has passed on to his son Jeff, who became the sole owner of his Redwing store in St. Peters, Mo., Wednesday.
"There's a difference between selling shoes and fitting feet," Jeff said. "That's really the difference between trying to do it right and selling shoes." People came to his father's store because "They always had those crazy sizes and fits. It doesn't cost a dime more to wear the right size."
"It's the small town philosophy," Jeff said. "One of the first lessons my dad taught me as a 15-year-old kid, he pulled me aside after a month of being on the shoe repair end and said, 'Son, this is simple, we need to make a living from these small towns around here. Families go to football games together, they go to church together. You fix those boots like their your own, you treat people like they're your family."
With just a few boxes of odd-sized boots remaining, long-time customers and friends of the brothers came to wish them well. Sounds, like the creek of the wood floors built in 1920, and voices, echoed through the mostly empty store. They talked about owning the same pair of boots for two, three, four decades that Jim refreshed every few years with new soles.
Sometimes people would come in to the store just to talk. They joked about the set of golf clubs and a rollout putting green sitting behind the shoe repair counter, surrounded by the tools Jim had used for more than half a century. Looks like hard work back there, they said.
"That's what I'm going to miss the most: friends coming in, giving me a hard time," Jim said.
One of the things they talked about how was much Dodge City has changed, how in the past downtown really drew a crowd.
"When we came down here in '69, you would not believe how much traffic there was," Virgil said. Business boomed for the 20 years after that, he said, but it has slowly declined, first with the "El Capitan" statue blocking the Second Avenue entrance to downtown, then the mall and 14th Avenue claiming most of the traffic.
He also thinks the City Commission could do a lot more to encourage downtown growth.
"I've been in business for a long time," he said, "and I see what's going on. ... No traffic and lots of empty buildings." On top of that, high property and sales taxes make it more difficult to compete.
"The damage is done," he said, but "they can help out new people that want to come to town." He'd also like to see downtown revitalized because his and his brother's retirement funds are tied up in the corner building they own.
"We worked all our lives for our retirement, now our retirement is just sitting here."
Retail has changed, too, he added. Now we live in a "self-fitting society" where cheaply-made shoes fall apart after a couple of years and customer service is a slogan rather than a way of doing business.
But, Virgil said, he hopes the fitting advice he's given so often through the years will continue to help people purchase "the correct shoes." It's as important as your back and your knees, he said.
A couple hours before closing for the final time, Doug Brauer stopped in to buy the brothers' last pair of boots, and he did surrounded by the brothers' friends and family.
The boots had been picked out before, something like getting the right size wouldn't be left to chance and inventory, but Virgil kneeled down, his own boots breaking at just the right spot, and checked the fit again.
When it came time to ring them up, Virgil tried to give them away, but Brauer insisted.
"Not many businesses stay open for 78 years," Brauer said. "It's quite a testament."
Afterward, he had the brothers sign the boots. He's still deciding whether he will wear them for a few seasons before they become a keepsake to perhaps the longest-running family business in Dodge City history.
"We've got a pretty good history," Virgil said.
"We’re going to miss the people, all the customers we took care of."
That's another lesson Virgil passed on to his son: "If you don't love it, you can't do the job."
He liked working with the public, meeting people, making friends and being known for being good at his trade.
"If you can't get along with people you shouldn't be in the business," he said. "But time's catching up with us. It's time for someone else to take it on."
Before the group of friends and family left with a pair of new boots and socks, Pastor Kent Groethe of Christ the King Lutheran Church gathered everyone and said a prayer.
All heads bowed, he started: "Dear Lord, we thank you for meaningful employment. We thank you for work."