This Store Has Been Selling Shoes in America’s Heartland for Nearly 100 Years

American Shoe Inc. in Missouri has withstood fire, a World War, the Great Depression — and the Great Recession. So what’s a little thing like the internet, say the fourth-generation family members who are taking over the nearly 100-year-old retail business.

Cousins Sarah Slay-Norden and Luke and Mike Quinn grew up in the store founded in 1919 by their great-grandfather Elias Thomas. “He came through Ellis Island and ended up in mid-Missouri, and he was so proud of the opportunities available to him here that he named the store American Shoe,” explained Slay-Norden.

The independent retailer’s first location was in the central business district in Missouri’s state capital, Jefferson City. But after suffering smoke damage from a fire, the store relocated about a block away in 1962. It still remains in that space, occupying three floors filled with offices, storage and a 2,000-square-foot showroom.

American Shoe Missouri Retailer
American Shoe’s founder, Elias Thomas.
American Shoe Missouri Retailer
American Shoe’s original store in Jefferson City, Mo.
CREDIT: Courtesy of retailer

A second location debuted in 1976 in Columbia, Mo., a college town that’s home to the University of Missouri and other schools. That shop is in a multiuse building purchased by Elias Thomas’ son, James Thomas. “Grandpa was very forward thinking,” said Slay-Norden.

In June 2017, the cousins created a stir in the community — and family — when they renovated the Columbia boutique. “We changed the floors, the fixtures, everything,” said Luke Quinn, “and we did it in only one weekend.” Added brother Mike, “You put a little paper in the window and people scratch their heads, wondering what’s going on. But a little bit of buzz is never a bad thing.”

American Shoe Missouri Retailer
American Shoe’s boutique in Columbia, Mo., was renovated last year.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Columbia Daily Tribune

Throughout the years, the retailer has stocked a range of men’s and women’s shoes and accessories. Its current product lineup includes athletic and outdoor labels such as Merrell, Keen and Saucony, classic comfort by Earth, Ecco and Bos & Co., and more trendy items from Gola, A.S. 98 and Miz Mooz. Prices average around $100.

Mike Quinn said the firm aims to balance trend and substance. “We want to find that pop item that will draw a new customer, but then continue on with functional yet fashionable things to keep them interested for decades, rather than to come in once and then move on,” he said.

Brandon Davis, regional sales rep for Fly London and Bos & Co., said of American Shoe: “They are very talented with current fashion and how they relate the product to their customer.”

The store’s greatest asset, though, is its emphasis on service, said Steven Weinreb, president of Gola USA. “[Mike, Luke and Sarah] retain the principles that have become the DNA of the business. They’re one of the few old-time shoe companies that’s left, where it’s all about customer service.”

American Shoe Missouri Retailer
Longtime storeowner James Thomas and son-in-law Dan Quinn.
American Shoe Missouri Retailer
The store’s third and fourth generations (L-R): Sarah Slay-Norden, Dan Quinn, Ann Slay, Luke Quinn, Sara Quinn, Mike Quinn
CREDIT: Courtesy of Columbia Daily Tribune

Indeed, the retailer was founded as a sit-and-fit store and continues to emphasize a hands-on approach. “We care that the customer leaves our store with a shoe that fits them,” said Slay-Norden. “Our goal isn’t just to sell a pair of shoes; it’s that they’re going to come back to see us again and will trust us.”

As the younger generation takes over, they will implement some technical improvements to the business. They already utilize email and social media platforms for marketing and stay current with the latest POS software systems, and they recently introduced Abeo’s digital foot-scanning device. “There will be little bits that we’ll change to make things flow better, but the heart of what was built, we can’t change that,” said Luke Quinn.

Most notably, the cousins have no plans to enter e-tail. “In a world of major e-commerce companies, do you want to be the pebble?” asked Mike Quinn. “We have a rapport with customers and are able to hang our hats on that. E-commerce is a thing that could be an added bonus, but why mess with a good thing?”

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