INTERLOCHEN — You want a quick insight into someone? Look down.
Shoes speak volumes about the souls inside them, so naming 1,200 shoe styles gets personal. Memories parade back in peep toes, slingbacks, and penny loafers as Jim and Carol Brouwer examine each vintage style, recognizing the people they knew in the shoes they loved.
"It's amazing how a shoe style will remind you of someone from your past," Carol said. Her P.E. teacher lived in her red, late '50s lace-up moccasins, hence the "Char." Her husband Jim distinctly remembers his mom cleaning out geometric mud from the rippled soles of her sturdy loafers — the "Jean." Other shoes at "a Vintage Sole" bring to mind pumps worn by Audrey Hepburn, fur-trimmed boots by Marilyn Monroe, or say, a Pan-Am flight attendant's purposeful cut through a crowded airport.
One customer went gaga over their original Go-Go boots.
"She wanted a pair so badly as a child but her mom wouldn't buy them," Carol said. "Fifty years later, she bought the same exact pair for herself."
Everything old is new again with mint-condition vintage shoes from the 1930s through 1960s, as shoe lovers of all ages flip for their fashion details and construction, Carol said. More than 5,000 pairs of shoes are stacked floor-to-ceiling in the Brouwer's Interlochen barn — a "feet" of organization with each pair cataloged by brand, style number, size, width and rating. All are unworn and many — besides the "wartime boxes" of the WWII-era — are still in their original boxes.
The majority are high-end women's shoes, but they also carry men's work shoes and children's sizes. Shoes are cross referenced six ways.
"It's a bit like the Dewey Decimal system," Jim said. "We don't let anyone put any boxes back."
Five years after "going live" the Brouwers still are naming, photographing and posting new-old shoes online as they mine the vintage cache found in the basement of a historic Frankfort high-end shoe retailer. They inherited the business from their daughter Libby, who bought the entire trove and launched "a Vintage Sole" as part of her merchandising marketing degree at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.
Shoes are a family business in more ways than one — Jim, 59, comes from a genetic line of shoe retailers, as his family operated shoe retail and repair shops in Wisconsin for more than a century.
"Never in a million years did I think I'd be back in the shoe business but here we are," Brouwer said. He left the family business to pursue computer systems sales but circled back when he and Carol moved from Milwaukee back to Carol's childhood home. Carol, 66, was wearing "tennis shoes" when they first met, he said.
Carol laughed. "I haven't worn heels since."
But the age of Crocs and Dr. Scholl's hasn't dulled enthusiasm for shoes hailing from a dressier time.
"People dressed up to chop wood," Jim said, and many still appreciate the quality materials, construction and precise sizing of that earlier era. Younger customers just like the "mod" look, Carol said.
"We're still learning about 'our vintage customer,'" Carol said, as they've sold shoes worldwide to people ages 13-93. Their shoes were used in period play productions in Norway and Australia.
Customers also come to their barn — by appointment only — in groups for "vintage shoe parties" just because "they don't make them like they used to," Jim said.
That was another puzzle — putting a price on "vintage" and translating 1930s or 1940s prices into today's numbers. An inflation table considering materials and quality helped them price their shoes between $28-$248, with most in the low-hundreds. The Bouwers additionally give discounts for those who make the drive and additional discounts and donations to the Benzie Food Partners to online shoppers who specify a checkout code.
The plan is to sell all of the shoes, so Jim can turn the storeroom into a woodworking studio, as "a Vintage Sole" is an outbuilding attached to the wooded family property far off the beaten path.
"We don't follow the three cardinal rules of retail — location, location, location," Jim said.
Visit www.avintagesole.com for more information or call 231-275-1525 for an appointment to visit the shop.