By Matt Golec
Melanie Michel of Norwich, Vt., misses The Shoetorium.
The venerable full-service shoe store in Lebanon, N.H., was where Michel used to take her two kids — Winston, 9, and Lily, 4 — to be fitted for shoes. But the Shoetorium closed last November after 45 years in the business, leaving parents like Michel searching for a footwear alternative.
There are other places to buy children’s shoes in the Upper Valley. But, as Michel found, “the customer service is not like the Shoetorium. The shoe fitting was like a science, and you always felt like they knew what they were doing.”
Many stores sell shoes, but not all of them ‘measure up’ in ensuring kids get a proper fit. Wearing the right shoes is important for healthy feet, experts agree, though parents can struggle to find the right fit. “I don’t have any background in sizing kids’ shoes, so I just kind of wing it and hope for the best,” says Michel.
One place in the Upper Valley where parents don’t have to wing it is Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, N.H., which specializes in athletic footwear. There, customers can have their feet professionally measured, a practice that used to be commonplace. “In a lot of stores, there is a fend-for-yourself atmosphere,” says Stateline’s footwear buyer Dave Dupree. “Stores like the Shoetorium, stores like us, are becoming fewer and far between.”
Dupree recognizes that the vast majority of shoes are bought without assistance and, even at Stateline, customers are free to fit themselves and their kids. But a badly fit shoe can cause trouble.
Dupree says his store has seen “an awful lot” of kids with foot problems: shin pain or flat feet from shoes without enough support. Bruised heels from a lack of cushioning. Sprains and other injuries from inadequate traction.
Shoes that are too big can cause blisters. Shoes that are too small can cramp the toes and force the foot into unnatural positions, leading to muscle or tendon issues. Shoes bought online might not fit, as sizes vary from one brand to another, or even within a brand.
And not all shoes are created equal. Dupree calls out Asics, New Balance and Saucony as brands that make quality shoes for kids, with good support that mimics their adult counterparts.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Dupree says. “You just don’t know what you’re getting without the help.” But even with all the expertise in the world, fashion can sometimes trump function. “A lot of times with kids it comes down to color more than anything else.”
Mike Blickarz understands. The former Shoetorium manager spent 44 years getting to know kids as he fit them (and their parents) for shoes at the Lebanon shop before it closed in 2015.
Blickarz recognizes the draw of a cool-looking shoe that all the other kids are wearing, but he also remembers the classes he took from Stride Rite, a longtime player in children’s shoes.
“The number one thing they taught us is that you need to measure a child’s feet,” he says. Which is how most stores operated, back in the 1970s. “People’s feet got measured.” Blickarz now works part-time at Feetniks Footwear in West Lebanon.
Blickarz cites a number of possible reasons for why shoe stores have changed, including younger generations leaving family businesses, the rise of big box stores and online shopping.
“It’s a lost art,” Blickarz says of fitting shoes. Even when you find a good-fitting shoe, kids keep growing, and their shoe sizes become moving targets. From his experience, Blickarz estimates that kids change a half size every four months or so, but kids might grow faster or slower, depending on growth spurts.
Need for Speed
Gina Surgenor of Meriden, N.H., knows all about growth spurts. The mom of four athletic kids age 8 to 18 says her family goes through shoes “like mad.”
Surgenor took her kids to the Shoetorium when they were young to get their Stride Rites, though visits fell off as they grew older. “As a busy mom, I wasn’t always keeping up with that,” Surgenor says.
Sometimes she goes to chain stores for the speed and selection or for an inexpensive pair of shoes that won’t be worn much. Her older kids have begun buying shoes online for the sales.
Surgenor trusts Stateline Sports, especially when she has questions about fit, but she hasn’t found many other retailers that offer shoe expertise.
“That’s just the sense you get,” she says. “You’re on your own.”
The Shoetorium may be gone, but here are some places to find kids’ shoes in the Upper Valley:
- Farm-Way in Bradford, Vt., and Hubert’s Family Outfitters, in West Lebanon, N.H., have a nice selection of athletic shoes, sandals and boots.
- Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, N.H., has sneakers and specialty athletic footwear, plus a well-trained staff.
- Country Kids Clothing in West Lebanon, N.H., has sporty shoes for babies and toddlers.
- Olympia Sports in West Lebanon, N.H., has a big selection of athletic shoes.
- Feetniks Footwear in West Lebanon, N.H., offers fashionable shoes to fit older kids and teens.
How to Get a Good Fit
- At a shoe store, ask if anyone there is knowledgeable about fitting children’s shoes. There’s a lot less training these days, but the store might have someone on staff that could help.
- Make sure your child has on the socks he or she will wear with that shoe.
- Measure both feet and fit for the larger one to give it the proper growth room. (“The smaller foot will kind of take care of itself,” Blickarz says).
- Have the child stand up in the shoes. There should be 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of room between the toes and the front of the shoe.
- For width, crease the material on top of the shoe between your thumb and finger. If you can pick up the shoe by that crease, it may be too wide for the foot.
- Finally, have the child walk around the store. Make sure the laces or Velcro are properly tightened, and watch for heels flopping out or feet sliding around.
Matt Golec lives in Norwich, Vt., where he does some writing, game design and light child care. Matt, his wife and son have lived in the Upper Valley for 10 years, though it doesn’t feel nearly that long. For more, visit mattgolec.com