When I was a young boy, my father, at one time or another, worked as a foreman in a gun manufacturing plant, distributed oils and machine lubricants at stock car races, made and sold clocks, repaired and installed siding on houses, and was one of the last door to door encyclopedia salesmen in central New York.
One of my favorite activities was to go into our back laundry room and pick up his tired, rumpled late-1970’s work boots and just study them. As a child, of course I wanted desperately to be big enough to wear Daddy’s boots, to walk in his steps. But I also became acutely aware of subtle nuances on each boot that I realized much later could be pieced together to tell a story. It was a kind of rudimentary archaeology of shoes, and I loved it.
Recently, a plethora of articles have appeared online and in print that feature horoscope-like predictions of peoples’ personalities based on their footwear choices (see this 2017 offering from Reader’s Digest and this 2018 quiz from Quizony).
Those articles are fun, but sometimes we need to look closer. After all, aren’t our personalities largely based on the sum of our millions of experiences?
On my Dad’s boots, the experiences were evident immediately…
There was the small but prominent chunk of sole missing at the left toe, a cautionary tale of an all-too-close encounter with our riding lawn mower, that I would hear repeated as a stern warning over and over after I got old enough to inherit lawn mowing duties.
There was the leather patch on the right toe, replaced many times, that was evidence of Dad’s tendency to stand with most of his weight on his left leg while bending his other knee and crossing right foot over left, leaving just the toe of his right boot touching the ground. He would stand like this for hours on end sharing a beer or two with friends and neighbors out on the rough crushed stone of our driveway.
There were the fold marks and cracks in the leather about two inches below the top of each boot, as Dad sometimes felt the need (I never knew why) to fold the cuffs of his boots down when wearing them with jean shorts and long socks.
There was the grape juice stain on the outside of the left boot, fading and barely noticeable, a relic of a late-night disagreement between Mom and Dad before I was even born. Mom had thrown her cup of juice at him before they both broke into laughter and he pulled her in for a hug.
And, of course, there was the fact that my Dad wore work boots at all. I grew up in what had once been a sulfur spring resort boom town, the kind of place that saw many more dress boots and elegant topcoats and large feathers in flowing ladies hats than anything else in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. But in the 1950’s and 60’s, as the wealthy tourists turned their attention to Saratoga, Newport, and the rolling hills of Vermont, dress boots gave way to work boots as my town became another rust belt holdover from a bygone era. Residents struggled financially to keep their heads above water, and many, like my dad, worked third shift at a manufacturing plant a few towns over only to come home for a few hours of sleep each morning only to get up and work the afternoon away on that car they were trying to get running to sell for a little extra cash, then back to the plant for another overnight.
I’ve been making my living selling footwear for a little over 15 years now, and in all that time I still peek at people’s shoes for the little stories they may hold. Of course, I see the obvious things in their shoes: the wear patterns that reveal how they walk, if they pronate or supinate, and how those movements affect the rest of their body. And while those more obvious things are critically important to selling healthy shoes and helping customers maintain healthy lifestyles, at times I can’t help but get drawn into the deeper stories that are told by a simple pair of shoes, stories that are recalled with laughter and tears, about places we’ve been, how we’ve toiled, and those we have loved and continue to love.
Look closer, and the stories abound.
Look closer, and what you find goes way beyond a personality predictor.
Look closer, and what you find is the portrait of a life.
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