Local independent shoe retailer marks unheard of 50th anniversary - Apr 19, 2004
Daily Reporter Staff Writer
No matter where Lenny Comeras is, he always looks at peoples’ shoes. He loves shoes. Several times a year, he travels with his wife Marcia to shows in the US, Europe and to visit shoe factories. And after only two years as a practicing downtown attorney, this after three years of law school at Ohio State University, he quit to sell shoes.
Comeras has been around shoes all his life. He was four years old when his father Reuben with business partner Bill Easton opened Easton Shoes in the Graceland Shopping Center in 1954. He said he remembers holding a broom when the store first opened, trying to help his dad clean the new store. This month, the independent shoe store, now run by Lenny and his wife Marcia, which is one of the oldest of its kind in the state and one of the few independent shoe retailers in operation, celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Bill Boettge, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association said, “It becomes a rare occasion when a retailer actually makes it to the 50 year mark. The retail footwear industry is extremely competitive … less than four percent of our members have made it to their 50th anniversary.”
Lenny Comeras said he and his wife “shy away from” buying shoes from third world countries “primarily because of the politics. People (there) are often paid poor wages and treated like slaves,” with much of the labor done by children working in bad conditions.
Instead, the couple opts to buy from independently-owned shoe factories in the U.S., Europe, Israel, Australia and New Zealand “where people are paid good wages,” the owner knows the employees, and they can directly inspect product.
Like his father, Reuben, Lenny Comeras said, “shoes are ingrained in my blood.” That is why he “had to” quit practicing law in 1977 to take over the family business when his dad retired.
“I am very happy about my decision,” Comeras said.
When Comeras was 16, he started working on Saturdays for his dad at Easton Shoes at Gracelend Shopping Center. And on occasion, the man who helped Reuben launch the business would be there talking to his father. That man was Tex Houston.
Reuben Comeras and Bill Easton had been working at Forsythe’s, a downtown Columbus ladies shoe store, since the late 40’s.
They knew Tex well. He was a distributor for International Shoe Company, a large domestic manufacturer, who would frequent Forsythe’s, pushing the ‘Ms. Wonderful’, ‘Soft Petals’ and ‘Vitality’ ISC shoe lines.
But on a visit in the early ‘50s, Tex talked to Reuben about opening his own shoe store. Lenny said at that time, ISC was helping entrepreneurs open family shoe outlets. In exchange for lease negotiation, site location and financing assistance, ISC wanted storeowners to exclusively stock its men’s, women’s and children’s products for two years.
Comeras said Tex “wanted my dad to do it on his own,” but Reuben “didn’t want all that weight on his shoulders.”
So, he elbowed his buddy Bill Easton about the project, and Easton, who was fifteen years his friend’s senior, agreed to be Reuben’s partner.
When the two sat down to think of the store name, Lenny said, ‘Easton’ sounded catchier than ‘Comeras.’
Five years after they opened Easton Shoes, Reuben bought out Bill Easton’s portion of the business.
Within the next several years, Reuben opened another store in Kingsdale Shopping Center, bought Bauereis Shoes in Delaware, opened a store in Great Western mall with Tex Houston and took over as manager of a shoe store at Great Southern.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the original Easton Shoes came under increasing competition as other shoe stores began operations at Gracelend shopping center next to his father’s store. And when Northland Mall opened, a few miles down Morse Road, Reuben go so nervous about losing his customers that his hair fell out.
“My father was very worried and upset,” Comeras said. But once the new mall lost its original sex appeal and Easton’s clientele returned, so did Reuben’s hair. “It grew back within a year.”
Just like Comeras’ choice to buy from independent shoemakers with well-paid workers, he has also chosen to keep operations to one store, now located on Bethel Road. In both cases he is opting for quality over profit.
“The one location - it’s enough. My wife and I…really like the idea of working together and being in the same store together.” Opening other stores is “not conducive to a stable situation. We have both been there. Done that.”
With one store, the couple has more time to travel abroad to find good shoes. Comeras thinks the Europeans, in particular the Germans, make the best footwear.
“I think Europeans walk a lot more than Americans. They have to walk to the market rather than getting into the car and driving. It’s forced them to think about the shoes they are wearing. We go to Germany every six months.”
At the time of this interview, Comeras was wearing Finn Comfort shoes, made in Germany.
About half of Easton’s customers have foot problems.
“I can’t tell you how many referrals we have from physical therapists, chiropractors and podiatrists.”
Comeras said customers often return saying their back and leg pain has gone away.
The proper shoes “really make a difference in your well-being. I can’t tell you how many people are wearing the wrong size.”
Comeras said he trains all of his workers to correctly use the Brannock device - the contraption with the metal slides that measure foot width and length.
And in modern times, the Brannock devices are clocking ever-bigger sizes.
“Today, people are much bigger than they used to be,” Comeras said. “Feet are much bigger. There is a high niche market in the wide width shoe. It used to be that size 13 was a large shoe. We have now ordered size 18 to 20 shoes. For women, sometimes 13s and 14s are not big enough.”
For their 50th anniversary, Easton Shoes is working in cooperation with the Italian Trade Commission. Comeras said he and Marcia will continue their shoe philosophy and continue to field wrong numbers from people asking about what movie is playing at Easton Town Center, or where in the mall Easton Shoes is located.