If you ever wanted to know the quintessential Durango shoe, Steve Swisher would be the person to ask. Swisher has been the managing partner at Browns Shoe Fit Co., for 32 years and makes all the stores purchasing decisions.
Active lifestyle, Swisher said of Durangoans tastes in shoes. (Durangoans) are laid back but sophisticated.
That Swisher has had more than 30 years to master the local shoe market is thanks to the steady success of his stores parent company, Browns Shoe Fit Co.
The company is celebrating its 100th year this month, no small feat among businesses that cater to small towns. The Browns Shoe Fit and Browns Sport Shoe stores in Durango are two of eight that remain open today, down from 13 at the companys peak.
While it is a chain, President and General Partner Tom Brown said the companys success comes from everything it does to separate itself from that designation. The company makes every effort to buy local when it comes to renovations or other needs and always locates its stores in the downtown district.
Were not in shopping centers, Brown said.
Also, most store managers are partners in the company and are responsible for deciding which merchandise to buy at their individual stores.
Each store is operated solely for the environment of the town its in, Brown said.
The strategy has worked in Durango, said Bob Kunkel, downtown business development manager for the city of Durango.
Even though theres more than one, they dont have any sense of it being part of a larger company, Kunkel said. They present themselves like a local business, and I think that endears locals to the store.
From its first location in Shenandoah, Iowa, the company has spread to small towns in California, the Midwest, Colorado and Oregon. The company split in two in the early 1960s. The chain of Browns Shoe Fit Co.s that includes Durangos stores continue to be run by the Brown family.
The first Browns store opened in Durango in 1977 at Ninth Street and Main Avenue. Five years later, the company outgrew its location and opened another store across the street.
The stores slow, steady success in Durango makes sense, said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
Its a great business model, and they know the market very well what type of shoe a Durango business person or recreator needs and wants, Llewellyn said.
Successful Browns stores fill the niche in the community that would not otherwise be filled, Brown said.
Businesses like Browns also add a crucial dynamic to the downtown business district, Kunkel said.
Theyre important in that they bring locals downtown, and locals are businesses base, he said.
Swisher said locals make up about 65 percent of Browns customers.
With the rise of the Internet and endless choices of footwear websites, Brown said the company hasnt seen a parallel drop -off in customers.
Were finding in our communities, and I dont think theyre unusual, that theres a real focus on people wanting to support local merchants, he said.