When I was a boy in my high school years, my dad would come home in the evening and pour himself a vodka on the rocks and say, "Son, don’t go into the shoe business. It’s a hard business. Disloyal sales reps, meshugenah customers with crazy chronic foot problems and an endless carousel of cooky salespeople. Find another line of work." I nodded and made a mental note to heed his advice. But, after 15 years of running away from the shoe business, fate (or was it destiny) had other plans. With a pretty new wife and a little one on the way, I came back. Shoes kind of get in your blood and coagulate there: their necessity and functionality, their luxury and style, the feel and smell of the leather. Everybody’s got to wear them. Once you start to love them it’s hard to leave them. Thirty-five years later and I’m still here.
I asked my dad once when a Florsheim store around the corner was going out of business and a Famous Footwear just down the street was coming in, "Dad, how do we survive while all these other stores come and go?" He said, "Son, those other stores are just run by clerks who don’t really care. You’ve got to have someone there who is going to be there day in and day out year after year who really cares about the success of the store." It kind of made sense to me and the years have borne him out. We're the only ones left standing!
The Early Years
Williams shoes had just one storefront. It was about 20 ft wide and 50 ft deep and we carried only one brand, Red Cross Shoes. These were shoes tailored to the more "mature woman" who needed comfort but with a modicum of style. In those days it would not be uncommon to see three more "mature women" in the store at the same time: one in a wheelchair, one with a walker and the last sporting a quadripod cane. It was enough to make a young man weep.
But, business was good and when the Nancy Keith candy store next door went out, Williams Shoes expanded and added another brand owned by US Shoe called Selby shoes. These were also more mature shoes but a little more stylish and higher price. Business continued to thrive until 1990 when the optical shop just adjacent to the West went out and Williams Red Cross and Selby Shoes once again expanded adding several other brands of shoes and men's shoes. The walking for health craze had just taken off so we called our new store 'The Walking Spirit'.
The Next Generation
Right around the time of The Walking Spirit expansion, the founder H. David Lembeck reluctantly passed the reins to his son Michael, whose reign was about to take the old Evanston establishment into new and uncharted waters. Once in charge of the purse strings, Michael went a little bit crazy buying whatever struck his fancy. If it was fun and funky, he bought it. If it was classic and beautiful, he bought it. If it was different and unique, he bought it. Slowly but surely, Evanston the surrounding communities began to dig it.
They began to come and see what was new and fun and different and happening. Then we added some decorative critters to the ambiance: some frogs, crocodiles, dinosaurs, a little frisbee golf and the Exciting Adventures of Nabob. And that is how we came to what we are today , the finest and funnest and best dogone shoe store from Chicago to Shoeboygan. The store "Where all your dreams come shoe!" and that's how we made it to 64 years and counting.