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Michael Lembeck, owner of Williams Shoes at 710 Church St., will retire at the end of July. He said he is in discussion with two potential buyers and would like to see the store, which his family has operated at the same location for 65 years, remain open.
“After 65 years in the family, 37 for me here, it’s the end of the road. It’s been a good run,” said Mr. Lembeck. “People have been coming in saying how much they are going to miss this place and asking what they are going to do now for shoes, that this is a terrible turn of events, but they are wishing me well.”
Mr. Lembeck is not certain how long Williams Shoes had been there before his father and uncle purchased it in 1954. A few years after buying the store, Mr. Lembeck’s uncle moved to Minneapolis and started a sister store. The brothers eventually had stores in several other locations, including Cleveland and Buffalo.
While the store always retained the name Williams, it often also included brand names or a tag line. For some time, it was Williams Red Cross Shoes, indicating that it featured the Red Cross brand, which offered comfortable shoes for women.
The store, which started as one storefront, eventually expanded into the space to the east and the space to the west, encompassing three storefronts. One of the spaces had been a candy store – Nancy Keith Candies – and Mr. Lembeck’s father continued to sell candy for a period. After about a year and a half, though, he determined that candy-selling was not a good business and turned the storefront into more shoe-retail space.
During what Mr. Lembeck described as the “walking shoe craze” of the early 1990s the business took over the third storefront – which had been an optical shop – and opened a section that included walking shoes for men and women. At that point the shop started carrying Rockport, Clarks and Birkenstock shoes, as well as other brands. Then the store’s name came to include “the Walking Spirit,” to indicate the walking shoe section of the store.
Referring to the two potential buyers, Mr. Lembeck said, “While it’s a big commitment and there are no guarantees, if there were ever an establishment that has a pretty good shot, it’s Williams Shoes. It’s an Evanston institution. If you could hear what people have been saying for the last three weeks after I put the sign up … ‘You can’t retire.’ ‘Please don’t close.’ So, we’re hoping and praying that someone will continue the store.”
Mr. Lembeck believes that the store is so important to people because there are fewer and fewer retail stores that are not national chains. “This is a place where you get something unique, you get something different. It’s not just one of 100 stores. This is something that helps make Evanston unique.” He also said that people still prefer to buy from people, as opposed to online, and that people still want to see the product before they buy it. He said ordering online is “a lot of work, a lot of shipping things back and forth. It’s nice for them to come in and have some assistance, see how the shoes fit, get suggestions. … People still want a shopping experience.”
Part of the Williams Shoe experience, said Mr. Lembeck, is the vintage ’60s and ’70s music that he plays, serving as a soundtrack for shoppers and others.
“We’ve kind of prided ourselves on our fun and exciting atmosphere.” He talked about the Star Trek theme in different areas of the store, including a Star Trek shrine and a Big Lebowski shrine – shelves full of figurines and books.
Mr. Lembeck said after he retires he plans to travel, to make trips longer than seven to 10 days – which was the length of time he felt he could be away from the store.
“I hope to get up to Toronto and to Montreal, maybe go down to San Miguel in Mexico. Never been to Spain and want to get to Barcelona and Portugal. … We’ve been telling friends in California for 15 years that we’re coming to see them.”
Asked if he plans to continue living in Evanston Mr. Lembeck said, “You know people ask me how I like living in Chicago and I always say it’s the second greatest City in the world. When they ask me what’s first, I say ‘Evanston.’”