My older son, The Toad, needs shoes. I head to the local outpost of a discount shoe chain. The shoes cost one million dollars, even discounted. I try a big-box retailer, which is even more horrifying, but the shoes only cost $20. “Only.” Ha. They begin self-destructing in the car on the way home. At dinner one night that week, I deliver a set of prepared remarks on the cost of shoes; on the general lack of quality products these days; on how when I was a kid, soda cost 30 cents; and you kids get off my lawn. No one really listens to me until I say that what we need is an actual shoe store. A real one. Like from when we were kids.
The Toad locks right in. “Can we buy roller skates?” he asks.
His mom tells him that second grade is probably a better time for roller skates. He’s only 5. The Toad throws himself onto the floor in protest. The bottom falls off his left shoe.
“Don’t you remember?” I ask my wife. The guy measures your foot, he disappears into the back, tells you he’s out of stock in that one, but why not try this on for size? And in your new sneakers, straightaway you can run faster and jump higher. You wear those suckers out of the store, and your feet glow. Your mother yells at you to be careful. To try not to scuff them up. You get an Orange Julius in the food court, and then you go home. It’s the best. I loved the shoe store.
My wife points to The Toad, still face-down on the floor. She says, “You want to take that to a real store? Go right ahead.”
There’s only one hitch: Like record stores and Sprite in those green, bumpy bottles, real shoe stores are hard to come by these days. But I find one, I think, in Reidsville. I call to make sure they’re the real deal. “We measure the feet of every person who comes in here,” the man says, in a tone equal parts suspicious of and sorry for me. I tell him we’ll be there in an hour.
I want to tell you about U.S. Highway 29 out of Greensboro. How I’ve always had a little love affair with it. How almost right away, you feel like you’re out of the city. How five or 10 miles north, you could once find Green’s Supper Club, where my grad-school landlord used to take us for ice-cold beers on the way back from minor league baseball games in Danville and Martinsville, just over the Virginia state line. But Reidsville’s only a few exits up. Look: We’re already at the Pennrose Mall, already at Strader’s Shoe Store. Motto: “Better Shoes for all the Family.”
Sam Lindsey, who now owns Strader’s, has been with the store for 41 years. He’s a big man with a giant handshake, and he knows right away who his customer is. He folds himself down to The Toad’s height. He produces the foot-measuring tool. The Toad asks if it will hurt. “Oh, no,” Lindsey says. We discover that The Toad has a wide foot. The Toad wants to know if that will hurt, having a wide foot. “It’s perfect for climbing trees and waterskiing,” Lindsey tells him, and heads for the back.
We do not choose the shoes. Sam Lindsey returns with what he thinks might do the trick, a pair of bright red and neon green sneakers that look like a mash-up between a track shoe and a monster truck tire. They’re unrepentantly ugly. The Toad loves them. “They’re fast, now,” Lindsey warns him. “You gotta be careful, they’re so fast.”
We’ve gone back in time, is the thing. Lindsey knows the first and last names of every single person who comes in the store while we’re there. It’s all smiles and jokes and how’s your mom doing?
Later, we spend the afternoon in downtown Reidsville. We walk the tree-lined streets and split a Play-Dough milkshake, an electric-yellow vanilla-and-cookie-dough concoction from the Downtown Dog House. We check items off of a city-sanctioned scavenger hunt: the green city seal, an orange hand, “cats numbering two.” The Toad sits on the steps of the granite-columned police station, keeps checking out his new kicks, and allows that he’s had a pretty good day.
But what I keep going back to is that mall, and The Toad picking his wide foot up about as high as his ear, then slamming it down onto the polished concrete floor. “Look how loud I can stomp now!” he hollers, his words echoing. Inside Strader’s, Sam Lindsey has moved on to another customer, another kid about The Toad’s age. You stand there, and you wonder how long a thing like a shoe store might hang on. How long shoe stores might last. And you hope, if you’re me — your kid in his new shoes, running through a sun-soaked atrium and climbing up on a coin-operated fighter jet straight from your own childhood — that the answer is a long, long time yet.