Back in 1959, there were 30 plus shoe outlets in downtown Jackson.
Today, there is Miller Shoe Parlor and around the corner from it, Genco Boot Shop.
“It's pretty dramatic how much things have changed downtown,” said Jim Shotwell, now retired owner of Miller, 103 W. Michigan Ave. His son, Steve, has taken over for his father, and Steve's son, Mike, 26, is the store manager and recently graduated from Jackson Community College.
That makes a fourth generation own or work at the shoe store, which was opened in 1913 by Charles A. Miller on the second story at 148 W. Michigan Ave., above Week's Drug Store. It was eventually sold to J.C. “Shotty" Shotwell in 1959, the same year Jim Shotwell began working for his dad at age 22.
Almost everything has changed since then, including family dynamics. “Back then, people had one car. I have four cars and four drivers in my family," Steve Shotwell said. Jim Shotwell said merchants knew between 50 and 75 percent of their business would happen on Friday, Saturday and Monday because Fridays were paydays. “People cashed their checks at a downtown bank and did all their shopping there, everything from groceries to clothes to appliances to shoes,” he said.
Merchants also followed the bus routes, knowing to expect more customers when they were dropped off at W. Michigan Avenue and N. Jackson Street, as well as when schools dismissed for the day. Now people are “destination" shoppers. They have a reason for a purchase, drive there and drive home, the men said.
Steve Shotwell said that on a Saturday in March, a dozen of his customers had driven more than 50 miles - from Coldwater, Alma, Toledo, Ohio, and other cities to buy shoes at Miller because of its customized fitting. He and Jim are certified pedorthists - specialists in the use of footwear and supportive devices to help fix problems affecting the feet and lower legs. The result is a number of people who buy shoes there because they were sent there by their podiatrists or heard recommendations from satisfied customers. "I watch people walk all the time and I know most don't have shoes that fit properly. Many either wear shoes that are too long or too short to get the right width. In other words, to keep their shoes on," Jim Shotwell said. "I watched a pro golfer interviewed on television about how he had developed a blister on his foot and had to withdraw from the tournament. It was an expensive mistake for him that he didn't have properly fitted golf shoes."
Miller Shoe Parlor truly is a family business. "I worked with my grandfather on Saturdays and weekdays with my dad," Steve Shotwell said. "My grandfather always told me to be happy with customers and make your job fun, and you won't work a day in your life."
He said he was only 8 years old when he started hanging out at the store and learning "advanced box stacking." When he got older he got to go on buying trips with his dad and got to know the owners of the shoe factories they bought from in Ohio and Wisconsin.
By the mid-1980s, it started to get difficult to find shoes made in America. In the past decade "it is almost impossible," the men said. Jim Shotwell credits Steve with adding more of what used to be called "tennis shoes" to the store's once predominant inventory of leather shoes for adults and children. At first, these shoes were mainly black high or low top shoes for boys. It used to be that leather shoes fit a bit tight because the leather needed to be broken in, they said. "Today," said Steve Shotwell, "people want their leather shoes to fit like slippers and not have to break them in at all."
Miller moved to its current location in 1976 when Jim Shotwell realized he needed to be on the ground level and decided to stay downtown. "We draw from such a wide area that I've never regretted staying downtown. We had a fantastic year last year despite the economy," said Jim Shotwell, who for 40 years walked to work almost every day from his home near Sparks Foundation County Park.
Steve Shotwell, for his part, walks to a part-time job across the street in the County Tower Building. He is chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Two of the best things to happen downtown Jim Shotwell said, were eliminating parking meters and creating - and finishing - the cityscape to unify the downtown district. Still, seeing empty stores always is disheartening. "As a business owner you hate to see it," Jim Shotwell said. He said he believes what he calls the "McDonald's theory" of business, getting lots of competitors nearby so if they are busy or - in the case of shoes - don't have the size or color shoe that a customer wants, they just walk (or drive) to nearby stores.
All this and much more is fodder for conversation. Jim and Steve Shotwell have breakfast together almost every Friday morning, either at the B 2 B Café or Airport Restaurant & Spirits. When they and their wives go out for dinner together, Steve Shotwell said, "the wives always say 'we aren't talking about shoes'. And it always starts out that way, but eventually we get around to it."