If the shoe fits, it probably came from Williams – the Walking Spirit.
The shoes, boots and sandals that line the shelves of Evanston’s independent shoe store, at 708 Church St. in downtown Evanston, are the latest styles and colors for men, women and children. But 60 years ago, in 1954, the choice was limited to one: Red Cross shoes, said Michael Lembeck, a third-generation shoe-store owner.
Mr. Lembeck’s father, H. David Lembeck, purchased the store in 1931. He did so, said Michael Lembeck, because he did not wish to work for his father, who owned a shoe store in Chicago. No one is really sure who the “William” was, but Mr. Lembeck says, he was “the son of the owner my dad bought the store from – according to legend.”
The sturdy and reliable Red Cross shoes were “tailored to the ‘more mature’ woman who needed comfort,” and, as the name suggests, to nurses. That was in the 1950s, and by the 1970s two additional brands, Selby and Joyce, lined the shelves.
As shops closed on either side of the shoe store – an optometrist to the west and a candy store to the east – Williams Shoes expanded. Walking, which seemed a fad in the 1980s, was trendy enough to generate new shoe styles, and Williams added “The Walking Spirit” to its name.
Style and Panache
Thirty-one years ago, in 1983, Michael Lembeck took over management of the store. The unexpected death of his father left him in charge of the store. “I was just thrown into the fire,” he said.
He began by attending shoe shows, mainly in Las Vegas and New York City, replacing his father’s conservatism in style with shoes that, he said, “struck [my] fancy. If it was fun and funky [I] bought it. If it was classic and beautiful, [I] bought it. If it was different and unique, [I] bought it.”
He now attends between 10 and 12 shows each year, still in New York City and Las Vegas, and some in Chicago.
“You want to carry the brands that people in your community are asking for … know what brands are popular,” Mr. Lembeck said.
Although it is relatively easy for Mr. Lembeck to obtain the shoes he wants for his customers and to experiment with new brands and styles, getting to that point took some time.
With other competing shoe stores in downtown Evanston and loyalty on the part of some vendors, “It was hard to get the brands I wished. But we’ve outlasted Edward’s, Hanig’s and Famous Footwear [former stores in downtown Evanston].”
Now Williams – the Walking Spirit offers sandals, casual shoes, dress shoes and walking shoes, hiking boots, rain boots, snow boots and fun boots from more than 30 trusted names such as Dansko, Birkenstock and Naot; Wolkys, Bussola, Merrell, Keen, Cob, Hill Fly London and – yes – Keds.
If style is the theme of Williams – the Walking Spirit, whimsy is surely a motif. From a perch on one wall, brightly colored fish gaze at the array of men’s shoes and sandals. On the floor of that room are a large tortoise, Kathleen, and crocodile, Madeline, both named for beloved former employees.
When customers are ready to pay, they can look beyond the cash register to a shelf display of “Star-Wars”-themed dolls and decorations on the left or “The Big Lebowski” on the right.
The ‘Kids of the Community’
“One of the most rewarding aspects of being here for 31 years is all the kids we’ve had working for us,” Mr. Lembeck said. “It’s a real joy to have kids from Evanston Township High School. These are the kids of our community. We see the kids learn to relate to the public and learn the responsibility of a job. We see them growing up. The high school kids are an endless supply of fun.”
In the back of the store he has a hall of fame, photographs of students from both ETHS and Northwestern University. One of the photos is of Jessie Mueller, who was at Williams – the Walking Spirit for a year before stunning New York with her talent and winning a Tony award last week.
Williams Next Door
The most recent expansion of Williams Shoes is Williams Next Door, a high-fashion clothing and accessory shop run by Marianne Lembeck, Mr. Williams’ wife, and their daughter, Zoe. According Zoe’s last weeks blog, Williams Next Door has been renamed RELISH: “Now as we have grown to have our own identity we want our name to reflect that.”
Mother and daughter “do the buying in New York City, Las Vegas and Chicago,” said Marianne Lembeck. “Zoe’s taste and mine seem to complement each other. Zoe’s [taste] is younger and funky. Mine is a little more conservative. We are always trying to figure out what Evanston and the North Shore like – things that will attract them.”
The age of their clientele, said Marianne Lembeck, ranges “from the mid-20s to 70. … Parents of Northwestern students love shopping here.”
“I like it that the shop combines fashion and creativity with business,” said Zoe Lembeck. “I think about and have fun with colors and textures. I like to think of where people will wear the clothes they buy here,” she added.
Zoe Lembeck, like her father, blends fashion and whimsy in her shop with the dresses she creates from atypical materials such as playing cards and skittles wrappers. Her current work, on display outside the shop, weather permitting, is a yarn dress.
Like Mr. Lembeck, Zoe and Marianne Lembeck have nothing but praise for their customers. “I love the people,” said Marianne Lembeck. “We know some great women,” echoed daughter Zoe.
More than a Pair of âilliams Shoes
Williams Shoes – the Walking Spirit was not the only Williams Shoe store in the country, said present owner Michael Lembeck. Mr. Lembeck said his father and uncle went into business together on this first venture but found Evanston was not big enough for both of them – each was young, newly married and expecting a child. “My uncle drew the short end of the stick and went to Minneapolis to set up a shoe store. The two [his father and his uncle] opened stores in Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Ohio and Rockford, Illinois, and one in Chicago.”
The partnership broke up after about 20 years, said Mr. Lembeck, and all the stores, except the Evanston flagship store, were closed.