On any given day, leaf-peepers, French Canadians, locals and nearby college students can be found congregating on Church Street, the pedestrian-only, open-air mall in Burlington, Vt. Amid picturesque fountains and Victorian buildings, shoppers have many options for entertainment — from hanging out at outdoor cafes and taking in street performances to shopping at a handful of chain stores and independent boutiques. But while it is unabashedly unique, this small, downtown destination hasn’t been immune to tough times, with some businesses shuttering and others in transition. Still, for three distinctive footwear stores, the challenging climate also offers an opportunity to shine.
THE SHOE SHOP
Owner: Liza Burns
Address: 38 Church St.
Square footage: 1,000
Footwear brands: Cole Haan, Frye, Gentle Souls, Hunter, Ugg
Three years ago, when Liza Burns took over The Shoe Shop, a 20-plus-year-old Church Street fixture, she was new to the footwear field, but no stranger to fashion, having owned a production company that created print ad campaigns for the likes of Ann Taylor and Sean John. “What an amazing challenge this has been,” said Burns, who made the move from New York to Burlington for marriage and children.
While The Shoe Shop already had a prime location on a highly trafficked corner of the city’s pedestrian mall, it was in need of a style makeover. Burns freshened up the shop by adding more feminine and funky details and bringing in a broader mix of fashionable footwear. “I knew that if the product was right, everyone would come in,” she said, noting that she was smitten with Church Street’s urban and trendy vibe.
Indeed, The Shoe Shop’s now-loyal customer base — primarily fashionable and quality-conscious women ages 18 to 80 — head to this intimate store for “big-city brands” with a sophisticated edge. And men aren’t left out in the cold: About 30 percent of the offerings are for guys.
Burns keeps her finger on the pulse by traveling to Manhattan each month to shop trade shows and boutiques and scope out street trends. An upbeat, knowledgeable staff that knows how to fit feet also distinguishes The Shoe Shop. “The customer is very savvy now. They have almost always shopped online for price comparisons before entering the store, so service and an atmosphere are key,” Burns said. “My staff is fun and warm, and who doesn’t love a day of shopping with girlfriends? You can’t get that online.”
Owner: Llyndara Harbour
Address: 96 Church St.
Square footage: 1,000
Footwear brands: Chie Mihara, Coclico, Frye, Jeffrey Campbell, Miz Mooz
In a way, snowboards were the ticket to Llyndara Harbour’s shoe career. Her husband’s job with Burlington-based Burton brought the California couple to Vermont, where Harbour found slim pickings in her field of makeup artistry. She also soon realized that the area had a need for more urban shoe options, so she remedied the situation in 2003 by opening a small shop named after her chic great-grandmother. And within two years, Stella moved to a larger location on Church Street.
The arrival three years later of Tootsies and the retooled Shoe Shop strengthened her conviction that Burlington was ready for fashion.
Label crossover has been minimal, and Harbour has benefited from proactive tactics such as guarding exclusive accounts. But the job is not without its small hurdles. “For people like me who are running a fashion business in a comfort area like New England, it’s not just about selling but educating. That’s been one of our biggest challenges: letting customers know that you don’t have to be in clogs to be comfortable.”
Harbour and store manager Rachel Routhier hand pick “unique, but not inappropriately unique” shoes and accessories from mid- to high-end labels that appeal to a wide range of customers, including fashionable and cost-conscious tourists, college students and the “executive wife or soccer mom.” But even if an item isn’t to Harbour’s personal taste, it still must evoke an emotional reaction. “I have to love it for that particular customer,” she said. “Even if it’s my bohemian-hippie chick, I have to love it for her.”
Owners: Mary Lou Robinson and Beth Estey
Address: 192 College St. (off Church Street)
Square footage: 2,370, including salon; selling floor about 1,185
Footwear brands: Aerosoles, Chinese Laundry, Dollhouse, Nicole, Nina, Madeline, Poetic Licence, Seychelles
Mother-and-daughter shopowners Mary Lou Robinson and Beth Estey are looking to the cross-generational sect. “We can easily sell the same shoe to a mother and daughter. And they often shop here together,” said Estey, who has bonded with her own mom over fashionable footwear. In fact, it was the Vermonters’ love of shoes — and well-groomed feet — that precipitated their partnership and the opening in 2006 of this shoe shop/pedicure salon.
Estey had previously lived in Arizona and developed a following for her specialty nails. Robinson, at a career crossroads, followed suit, nabbing a nail technician job at the original Tootsies in Vero Beach, Fla.
“Once we stumbled upon Tootsies, it just hit me like a brick. Shoes and pedicures — hello!” Estey said. Burlington, she decided, was ready for its own Tootsies, so she spirited her mom back to their home state. A few months later, the shop was open for business. “[It’s] not a franchise. We call it a ‘friend-chise’ because we flip-flop information,” said Robinson, who estimated there are about a dozen Tootsies nationwide. “They’re all individually owned and operated.”
The mani-pedi salon is a colorful sanctuary in the rear of the store, while the shoe shop offers uncluttered displays, friendly service and reasonable prices.
Still, fallout from Church Street’s retail turnover has been “double-edged,” said Estey. As pedicure competitors have closed, more business was funneled Tootsies’ way, “but none of the other shoe businesses have gone out,” she said. “Even though we’re all in close proximity, we have our own niches.”