by Sheri Worm, Contributing Writer
Grand Traverse Insider – October 08, 2012
INTERLOCHEN – Jim and Carol Brouwer have developed a most unusual business – "a Vintage Sole" –selling what Jim calls orphan shoes, not to be confused with shoes for orphans. These are indeed vintage shoes, dating from 1938 through the 1970s, but they have never been worn and each pair goes to the customer with its original box.
Jim and Carol Brouwer proudly display one of the styles available through their business, "a Vintage Sole." The couple is shown in front of a shelf holding just a sampling of the original boxes that house "orphan shoes." Photo Special to the Insider
The Brower’s’ inventory includes an amazing variety of footwear. In addition to classic shoes, they have cowboy boots for children, majorette boots like those worn in the "Music Man" movie, solar boots, bowling shoes, boots that slipped on over your shoes, a pair of official Boy Scout shoes which the couple is planning to donate to the Boy Scout museum, and even more.
Some of the boxes come with a history. These are the "war time boxes" and they arrive with a card that explains what happened during World War II when supplies were at a premium and competitors helped each other in case of damaged boxes.
Not all the shoes have been cataloged. With more than 5,000, there is still work to be done to get every pair listed on the website.
"We keep discovering shoes and then rediscovering them," Carol said. "Only about a quarter of the women's shoes are listed so far."
Her face lights up when she holds out a pair of slippers for a little girl, pink with a white rabbit around the ankle, obviously a favorite.
"We have slippers for men, women and children," she explained, "and it's our plan to have them all on the web in time for Christmas shopping."
The Brouwers have shipped shoes to the UK, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Canada in addition to attracting customers throughout the United States. They get back thank-you notes and comments that say the shoes fit well and are comfortable.
"Incredible!" declared one.
"As you look around there is no single shoe style popular today," Jim said. "That is why we can sell these shoes. A pair that was popular during the Second World War, or one that people wore in 1950 or 1970 for example, does not look out of place today but it sure does stand out in quality and fit."
In addition to selling online, Jim and Carol do private showings by appointment (231-275-1525) and offer a discount (since the company doesn’t have to incur shipping and handling costs). Another benefit of private showings, Jim fits each pair.
The business also offers refreshments when friends come out together for a "shoe party." The couple believes these events will grow in popularity as potential customers enjoy reviewing their inventory and the opportunity to try on a pair of elegant shoes or one perfect for a hike in the woods.
Jim grew up the shoe business. His great-grandfather was a cobbler and his grandfather started the nationally-known S.J. Brouwer Shoe Company in Wisconsin. His family owned five family shoe stores, two stores that sold only children's shoes, plus two shoe repair shops.
As true of many young men growing up in a family business, Jim decided that it just wasn’t right for him at the time, so off he went into the world to seek out his own career path. Years later, upon leaving the big city business climate and settling full time in northern Michigan, Jim was suddenly thrown back into the world that was already ingrained within his DNA.
The situation developed when Jim, Carol and their daughter Libby discovered a huge cache of shoes that had been gathering in the basement of a shoe store since before the Second World War.
Libby needed to prepare a business plan for one of her classes at the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising, in Los Angeles, California. She decided to put together a plan for an online vintage shoe business, even to the extent of web design and testing the market. Libby went on to graduate and is now executive assistant to Advancement at Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Jim and Carol bought all the shoes and "a Vintage Sole" was born. A large out-building sits on the Brouwer’s property just outside Interlochen. It was to be Jim's workshop and storage for their cars but is instead lined with shelves holding thousands of shoes.
It is fascinating to see and the shoes are indeed incredible – at least according to one writer/enthusiast …
For additional information, visit "a Vintage Sole" on Facebook or on the website: avintagesole.com