MINNEAPOLIS – For 77 years, Roberts Shoe Store has been watching the evolution of its south Minneapolis neighborhood. Now the corner of Lake and Chicago will be moving on without its landmark business.
Roberts is closing its doors.
"Emotionally, it's difficult," said Mark Simon, the owner of Roberts Shoe Store. "I'm hoping I'm not letting down anyone, especially my in-laws."
Simon took over the business founded in 1937 by his father-in-law, Nate Roberts. The polish immigrant purchased the single store from a chain when the Minneapolis Shoe Company went bankrupt, according to Simon.
The story behind the Roberts' closing is not a new one. Like many independent retailers, Roberts Shoes has struggled in the face of competition from malls and the internet.
Simon said sales took an immediate hit when the Mall of America opened and never recovered.
"It's not a business model that is really workable right now," said Simon. "I think it's time for all of us to move on."
Employees were told of the closing a few days ago. A going out of business sale is set to begin on Monday.
Ken Lerzcak, a Roberts salesman for more than 30 years, says he wasn't surprised. "There's not enough traffic, there's not enough walk-in customers."
Lerzcak said the relocation of a bus stop from the front of Roberts Shoe Store to nearby Midtown Global Market further hurt sales.
"Stores like us which are basically independents aren't going to exist anymore," Lerzcak said. "You see nothing but the same stores, over and over and over."
Though smaller in number, Roberts' remaining customers remained loyal. With its longtime motto "Hardly a Foot We Can't Fit," Roberts kept in stock many larger sizes and was willing to special order shoes at a time many chain stores discontinued the practice.
"Yeah, it's the only place I can get shoes," said customer Clem Paschal, who wears a wide size 14. Still unaware of the Roberts announcement, he added. "I hope they never close."
Simon says he hears that all the time. "I have people coming from actually all over the state, who've shopped here for years and years," he said. "But there's not enough of them."
Simon shared a few stories from Roberts' rich history, including a tornado in 1981 that tore off the building's roof and broke out all the windows. "They were finding our shoes in St. Paul," said Simon.
Despite the damage, Roberts was back in business the next days, selling shoes on the sidewalk.
Roberts also survived the decline of Lake Street. When the Rialto adult movie theater across the street was torn down, the "R" at the top of theater's vertical sign was lowered down and presented to Roberts Shoe Store. It still sits in the store's front window.
Simon says the emergence of Midtown Global Market and other changes along Lake Street have created a better environment overall, but did not help his sales.
With its wide selection and period shoes, Roberts sold footwear to the producers of the Minnesota-shot movies "Fargo" and "Grumpy Old Men."
Simon said the Guthrie Theater is also a customer. "And I'm sitting there annoying my wife by saying, 'That shoe's ours, that shoe's ours,'" he laughed.
Among the inventory at Roberts are some odd sizes that remain on the shelves decades after they were manufactured. Simon pulled out a size 11 AAA from the mid-1970s, still new and in their original box.
"This shoe was here before me," he laughed. Simon said he held onto the narrow pair of shoes because "someone will walk in and say, 'Do you have an 11 AAA?' And I'll say, 'I just happen to have one.'"
Don Lerner is Roberts' longest tenured salesman, having been hired by Nate Roberts in 1967.
"The only thing that compares to losing the store, is when I lost my wife three years ago," said Lerner, now 83-years-old.
Lerner said he isn't ready to retire, noting that Roberts, the store's founder, worked until he died at age 89.
"All good things must come to an end. And this has been a good thing," he said.
Simon, who owns the building, said he will begin searching for a new tenant.