Posted: January 01, 2010

Smallbiz: Oldest shoe store in touch with times

Mike Taylor

You get the feeling Bruce Benge has seen about everything in his line of work - and not just because he's the third-generation owner of the oldest shoe store in Colorado.

The shop where Benge today sells mostly women's shoes dates back to 1911 when his grandfather, Bertrand Benge, pulled up stakes in Winterset, Iowa, and moved his family to Grand Junction, where he opened up Benge's Shoe Store on Main Street.

Bruce Benge, 60, took over the business from his own father in 1975 and has been here ever since, through boom-and-bust cycles of the Western Slope's energy-based economy, waning profitability in kids' and men's shoes (hence the focus on women, who buy more shoes), and competition from the Internet.

Regarding the online trend, he says, "That's tough for everybody. It makes you refocus on what you're going to try to do and to do a better job of it."

Then again, an Internet shopper wouldn't get to see Benge's once-revolutionary "fluoroscope X-ray machine" still on display at the store. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, kids could stick their feet inside the contraption and see the bones through their shoes. The machine was billed as a shoe-fitting tool but was really more of a novel amusement. Often kids would stop on their way home from school just to stick an appendage into the machine and marvel at the skeletal display.

"It probably had a six- to eight-year run before they decided, ‘Hey, it's not a good idea to be doing all the time,'" Benge says, citing the radiation the contraption emitted. "So it didn't have a lot of longevity, but it sure made an impression while it was around."

A more recent and healthier development in the shoe industry Benge cites is comfort.

"I'm amazed that when I first started in this business, women would put on a pair of shoes, and they'd actually be surprised that they felt good," he says. "It's only been in the last decade or so that comfort became the No. 1 buying decision in shoes. Now, that's surprising. You'd think that'd be a no-brainer."

Benge says one of the biggest trends of late has been "wellness footwear," although he doesn't sound completely sold on all aspects of it. "You've got all these different shoes in the marketplace that are going to burn more calories and make your butt tighter and take cellulite away," he says, not sounding overly convinced. "Who knows whether it works, but it's selling some shoes, I'll tell you what."

Benge recently was named Small Business Champion of the Year by the Colorado Leadership Council of the National Federation of Independent Business. He suspects he was selected because of his store's longevity - along with surviving 98 years it's been a member of the NFIB since 1953 - and because of his willingness to speak up on small-business issues when asked by the local media.

But on the subject of pending health-care legislation, he offers more of an observation than an opinion.

"Boy, who knows on that one. How thick is that document - 1,400 pages or something? My gosh. All I know is that you're paying right now what you used to pay for a mortgage payment - for health insurance. If you're not part of a huge group plan and you've got 10 or less employees, it's a big number," says Benge, who employs five to six people. "Somewhere, sometime, the cost of health insurance and the cost of health care have to have some more equitable boundaries. I don't propose to have an answer for it. I just know there's got to be a change in it."

Having been at it 34 years, Benge says the most enjoyable aspect of the business is less about shoes than about people.

"Gosh, I've watched little kids grow up to be moms and dads, and their moms and dads and grandmas have deceased and so on," he says. "I mean, you see the whole cycle. And that's pretty cool, being born and raised in a community to watch that go on. I think I'm very fortunate to be able to do that."

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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