John’s Shoe Shop North, Cindy Feloney photo

In The Family’s Footprints

Cindy Feloney has come full circle with her family’s shoe business

by Janet Essman Franz

Cindy Feloney, the owner of John’s Shoe Shop North in Richmond, represents the third generation of shoe experts in her family.

Cindy Feloney is living out her destiny — to be proprietor of a shoe shop in Vermont and to pass her shoe shop legacy on to her children. She was born into the profession, as were her parents, and her children have been fixtures at John’s Shoe Shop North in Richmond since it opened 16 years ago. Feloney’s family has operated John’s Shoe Shop stores in the Northeast for nearly 88 years.

As a new mother in 1990, Feloney decided to open a shoe store so she could set her own schedule and bring her children to work. She knew a great deal about fitting people for shoes, buying merchandise and running a store, because she worked in her parents’ shoe shop in Hamilton, N.Y., throughout her childhood.

But the story really began around 1900, when 10-year-old John Plesniarski, Feloney’s grandfather, was an apprentice to a shoemaker in Poland. He brought his craft to America when he immigrated to Rome, N.Y., before World War I. After a time, he moved to Hadley, Mass., where he met Sofia Adamowicz, his bride-to-be. He and Sofia eloped and settled in Burlington in 1917.

Plesniarski worked at the Sikora shoe repair shop on Center Street until 1919, when he opened his own shoe repair shop, the original John’s Shoe Shop, on Church Street in the space now occupied by Apple Mountain Vermont Gifts. After a few years, the Plesniarskis sold the Burlington store and moved to Rome, N.Y., to be near his siblings.

Plesniarski opened another John’s Shoe Shop in Rome and ran it successfully until the Great Depression hit. He could not make a living in Rome so he moved the shop to Hamilton, N.Y. The Plesniarskis rented space with a storefront and lived in the back of the store. He repaired shoes in half of the storefront and she made dresses in the other half. Eventually they purchased a home and moved out of the shop with their children.

Mayfred and Judy Plesniarski, Feloney’s parents, opened a John’s Shoe Shop retail store across the street in 1953. He borrowed $2,000 from the elder Plesniarski, who moved his own business into the space and continued to repair shoes until the early 1970s. Mayfred invested the loan in manufactured men’s work boots, eventually adding ladies’ and children’s footwear, sporting goods and equipment for skiing, hockey and baseball.

“Mother did a lot of the fittings and was responsible for retail sales,” says Feloney. “She was the key person out front and the head bookkeeper, and together they bought merchandise. Dad did repairs in the back and helped mom out front when it was busy.”

Her entire family worked at John’s Shoe Shop over time, she says. Her brother and four cousins repaired shoes with her father while she and her sister worked retail with their mother.

John’s Shoe Shop North, Sofia and Chris Feloney Cindy Feloney’s children, Sofia and Chris, grew up in the shop, learning the business much as their mother had. Sofia, 17, was recently put on the payroll as a part-time employee.

The family witnessed first-hand the evolution of retail during the 20th century. “We watched the trend change from mom-and-pop shops to strip malls and eventually indoor shopping malls. Then a lot of factory shoe stores started to open, and the factory stores carried single brands like Dexter, Dunham, Timberland. These were brands we carried,” says Feloney. “The factory shoe stores pulled away from the mom-and-pop shoe stores.” Still, John’s Shoe Shop managed to stay competitive, even as more people shopped from catalogs and the Internet.

“My parents survived all of those changes in retail and stayed in business 51 years,” says Feloney. They closed the Hamilton store in 2004, the year grandmother Sofia died, a few days short of her 100th birthday. John Plesniarski predeceased her in 1973.

As Feloney pondered the direction of her own career, she did not plan on running a shoe shop. She attended Canton ATC in Canton, N.Y., and majored in business at Cortland State University, where she met Terry Feloney, a Burlington native and the man she would marry. She and Terry moved to Vermont and settled in Huntington. He worked in the paving industry and she worked as an internal auditor at a local bank. When pregnant with their daughter, Sofia, Feloney decided to stay home to raise children. It didn’t take long for her to become restless, however, nor for the shoe store bug to bite.

“When Sofia was 11/2, I decided I wasn’t an at-home person and wanted to go back to work; but I also wanted to have my daughter with me. My husband said, ‘Just open a shoe store.’ So I did.”

In August 1990, she opened John’s Shoe Shop North in an 1840s house on U.S. 2 in Richmond. Her son, Christopher, was born in March 1991. “My father-in-law ran the store for me while I was on maternity leave for 13 days,” she says, laughing.

Sofia and Chris came to work with Feloney each day. “I fed them, carried them and waited on customers at the same time. I was open six days a week. I did a lot of paperwork at night,” she says. As the children grew and sales increased, Feloney hired an in-store baby sitter and several part-time sales assistants.

A customer came in recently with her 20-year-old daughter and told Feloney she remembered shopping there with her children in the early 1990s when Sofia and Christopher were babies. The customer said she had admired Feloney for running a store while raising her children there. “She said it was nice to come into a retail store that was kid-friendly,” Feloney says. “This is a great occupation for a mom raising kids. You can see people and make a living, but still raise your kids.”

John’s Shoe Shop North became known for customized fittings and products for orthopedic issues. “Before we size people, we ask them to take their shoes off and stand up. We look at how their arches respond and their bones flex with and without weight on their feet. We look at the length of their arches and their toes,” Feloney says. “The shape of people’s feet and the contours of their arches dictate what we put on their feet.”

John’s Shoe Shop North receives numerous referrals from physical therapists, many of whom are customers themselves. Maureen Fraser, a physical therapist at Choice Physical Therapy in Williston, buys her family’s shoes there and sends patients to Feloney.

“I know if I send people to her they will get shoes that are right for them,” Fraser says. “She understands how different shoes are made and what different manufacturers can offer. She looks at your individual foot and recommends specific brands that will work for you.”

The store sells some clothing, such as Carhartt, Johnson Woolen Mills, Wood Chuck and Ojai, but the focus is on shoes. Brands include Chippewa, Red Wing, Ulu, Brooks, LaCrosse, Vasque, Sebago, Clarks of England, Naot, Hush Puppy, Soft Spots, 1803, Santana and Merrell. Feloney places orders as needed.

“I’ve built my business on doing special orders,” she says. “My focus is getting the customer the right footwear for the right price. If I tied up my company with large orders, it would inhibit me from getting in merchandise for special needs.”

John’s Shoe Shop North, Cindy fitting a foot for shoes Having grown up in the shoe business, Feloney places great importance in proper measuring for the best fit. She receives numerous referrals from physical therapists.

Feloney keeps files on her customers’ sizes, tastes and orthopedic needs. “I tend to buy the way my customers like to buy. My daughter and I will see something at a trade show and say, ‘Oh, Gretchen might like that’ or, ‘Ryan will like that.’ A lot of my customers say, ‘I don’t need to shop, you have already done my shopping for me. I just come pick out the size I need.’”

That kind of service and the small-store atmosphere helped build a solid base of loyal customers. Erik Filkorn, an advertising professional and chairman of the Richmond selectboard, counts himself among them.

“It’s an actual shoe shop run by someone who knows about shoes,” he says. “She has index cards on people with their sizes and needs. It’s like having a personal footwear consultant.”

In 2000, after operating the store 10 years, Feloney wished for more time with her children. She let her employees go, reduced the merchandise and opened only four days a week. During this period Feloney explored her interests outside retail. She coached softball and field hockey at Camels Hump Middle School, and for three years she alternated coaching with running the shop part time. She made time to ski with Terry and the children, play tennis with Christopher and softball with Sofia.

In 2005, with her children in high school, Feloney increased sales hours to five days a week, expanded the building and added merchandise. She is creating a website with plans to sell shoes via the Internet. She hired Sofia, now 17, as a regular part-time employee.

Sofia helps her mother select merchandise, fits customers and sells. Clearly, she is following in the family’s footprints. She plans to study resort management at college next year but expects to stay in the shoe business.

“It’s been a family tradition and I want to keep it going,” Sofia says.” It’s what I’ve done all my life. I know how to buy shoes and what will make people comfortable. She remembers her grandparents’ store as a place with a great ambiance where people liked to shop. “I love the atmosphere. I love being around people and I love shoes.” •