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Putting their best feet forward for a century

Putting their best feet forward for a century

By Nicole Davis

Eckstein Shoe Store has experienced a lot through the passing of time, but not much has truly changed on the inside. The family-owned business continues to offer a personalized touch to fitting and measuring customers’ feet and with its shoe repair – just like it has for the past 100 years.

“Back in the day when this store opened, you got fitted for your shoes, your dresses, your clothes, your suits,” said Jim Coffman, owner. “You got fitted for everything. Most of the shoe stores have went away. But this has remained a true sit-and-fit store. We’re not up to date on a lot of things, but we sell good quality footwear that is fit to your foot. I think that’s what has kept us open the whole time, because of the customer service we provide. The Kennedys provided it, the Ecksteins and Millers provided it and the Coffmans continue to provide it.”

The History

Kennedy Shoe Store opened in 1923, ran by Bob Kennedy until 1953. Al and Margie Eckstein purchased it then, changing the name to Eckstein Shoe Store. Their daughter, Shirley Miller, began working for them while she was in high school.

“When I got to be a senior in high school, I was going to go to college,” Shirley said. “My dad said ‘you’re not going to leave me now, are you? I need your help.’ I knew some of the business by then. I said ‘ok, I’ll stay and help you.’”

Shirley and her husband, Paul, took over the business in 1973. She ran the business for 58 years before deciding it was her time to pass it along to another family. The problem was, she couldn’t find a buyer. She started to close the store in 2011, having gotten rid of half the inventory when she received a pleasant surprise.

From left, Jim Coffman, Shirley Miller and Mary Coffman DeVore. (Photo by Nicole Davis)

“For three years I prayed that I could sell this store to a family,” Shirley said. “I couldn’t get any offers on anything. All of a sudden after three years, (Steve Coffman) comes in as I’m closing my business down. We’re having a going-out-of-business sale and he’s following me around all over the room, the back walls, the backroom, everywhere I went. He said, ‘I’m going to buy this store.’ I said, ‘quit pulling my leg, you’re pulling my leg, aren’t ya?’ He said ‘no, I’m not pulling your leg.’ I said, ‘if you say so, but right now I’m in the middle of a sale.’ He followed me everywhere. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was going to buy this store. But it happened.”

Simultaneously, Steve called his son, Jim, sharing about this little shoe store in Beech Grove that was for sale to see if he’d want to buy it. Jim had been searching for a new job and while he couldn’t afford to purchase it at that time, it was an opportunity to bring him back to his Beech Grove hometown. In 2012 Steve and Sharon Coffman purchased Eckstein Shoe Store, with the plan for two of their children, Jim and Mary Coffman DeVore, to help run it. Later, Jim and his wife, Jennifer purchased the store from them.

“It seemed crazy to me,” Jim said. “Why would I want an 88-year-old shoe store? That wasn’t my dream. But it was one of the best decisions I ever made. This is a great business.”

Into the New Era

Shirley and her son, Bob, helped the Coffmans in the transition, teaching them to cobble and about the behind-the-scenes labor. They continue to offer a helping hand when needed or make visits to the store to this day.

“I’ll never forget the first sale we ever had,” Mary said. “We had a big sale to let people know that we’re still here, we’re still open and everything. My brother and I were taking care of customers. The front door has that buzzer and it just kept going and going. I look over at my brother and think, ‘this is crazy.’”

Jim Coffman, Shirley Miller and Mary Coffman DeVore reminisce while looking at a copy of The Southside Times from 2011. In the article, Miller
believed she would be closing the store, but a buyer stepped in soon after. (Photo by Nicole Davis)

When the Coffmans purchased the shoe store, there were a lot of vacancies and empty store fronts along Main Street. Six months after they purchased it, the city tore up Main Street to improve the roadway which made for a stressful first year. But business picked up and in 2019, the store celebrated its best year yet. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, causing business to slow down drastically.

“We have dedicated customers,” Mary said. “They care about the store. During COVID I had a customer call and say, ‘I don’t want to see you guys close. I don’t need shoes but I’m buying a pair of shoes because I want to help keep you open.’ Our customers really value what they get here and the relationships. It means a lot to them.”

Business is not only on the rise for Eckstein Shoe Store but Main Street as well with newer businesses having opened throughout.

“We are becoming a destination again which is exciting,” Jim, who is also president of Next Stop Beech Grove, said. “I think that’s the work of a lot of our nonprofits. The chamber, Promoters Club, Next Stop and our business owners. Our business owners are invested in our community and want to see it succeed.”

Continuing a Dying Art

While browsing through the selection of shoes, Shirley expressed joy that not only is the store in which she poured so many years of her life into still open 12 years after she thought it would close, but operating in a way that brings home nostalgia.

Original owner Bob Kennedy of Eckstein Shoe Store, then R.E. Kennedy Shoe Repairing. (Submitted photo)

“We were a family shoe store, my dad and I,” Shirley said. “This was a family that took over and that’s what I wanted. I’m so happy. They put the shoe on your foot, just like we did. That makes a big difference in customer satisfaction.”

Eckstein Shoe Store carries SAS shoes, one of the only American-made shoes remaining, and New Balance. When it comes to inventory, Shirley shared that she took pride in carrying three different widths which they still do today. Now, there are many more color options available than the black-and-white options of her day.

There were approximately 100,000 shoe repair shops in the United States in the 1930s, around the time Eckstein Shoe Store opened. Today, there are less than 4,000.

“I think that is what keeps the front door ringing is people can’t find those services anymore,” Jim said. “Even after 100 years, they can still find that service here in Beech Grove. We’ve evolved a little so it’s not just shoes anymore. It’s purses and bags, belts and holsters, luggage, dog leashes. Any repair that’s out there, we’ll try it once.”

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