March 12, 2010
Selling shoes, connecting with friends
The following is a look at the daily work life of an area resident.
Dale Taylor said nobody has a perfect foot — nobody.
“Most of our customers have a normal foot, don’t get me wrong. But we have people with bone spurs, tendons that get stretched, hammer toes, bunions or arthritis. As you get older, you get a lot of (problems) that come from people walking upright. Every step you take puts your entire weight on your feet and we jam our feet into shoes that are not always comfortable.”
The Virgil man, owner of Sarvay Shoe Company, who has worked there for 33 years, will spend a little time each day, working over a leather shoe, widening it, softening it, to accommodate a bunion or other unique foot situation, for a customer.
The other day he took care of a customer who had a big toe that went under her first toe and stuck up next to the other toes. He showed a set of mammoth metal tweezers with a ball on one end and a scoop on the other. “This tool makes a hole,” he said, tweezing a spot on the shoe where a foot with a bump needs room. “You can really make a pocket if you have to ... Leather is malleable. It’s pliable. It’s great to make shoes with. We try to only have leather here.”
“My first priority is to put shoes on people ... It’s not rocket science what we do, it’s paying attention to business. You come to work and do what needs to be done.”
And sometimes it’s not about the shoes. “I get paid to shoot the breeze with people. I like to talk. I like to shoot the breeze. The fact that I’m selling you a pair of shoes is a bonus.”
Sarvay Shoe Company, located at 50 Main Street, Cortland, has been in business for 117 years. Merton Sarvay opened the business on Central Avenue in 1893 in its original locale. His son, John, worked the business from 1920 to 1971 and his son, Jim, started working there in 1956, taking the company through to 1993, marking 100 years of the business in the family, before he sold it to Taylor.
The company sells shoes, sneakers, boots, pocketbooks, backpacks, bags and socks, catering to men, women and children
“I think we’re the oldest (retail) business in Cortland County,” Taylor said.
Taylor started there in 1977 as a part time clerk.
“I was biding my time. I had no interest (in staying here),” he said. But he walked into a “fortunate set of circumstances,” he said. “I was good at this. I could get people to buy stuff. Jim gave me a raise. He put me in position of responsibility. After that first year, he took me (on a buying trip).”Sarvay asked his opinion and the merchandise the two bought, sold. The next spring, in 1978, his future wife walked in the store, as a customer. The two eventually married.
“Once you get into that kind of relationship you put down roots. And the shoe store was a good business. You are not dealing with people that give you a lot of grief. They treat you as a friend,” he said.
Taylor got to know his customers, their history and their kids’ history while Jim Sarvay showed him all parts of the business when he knew his two sons weren’t interested.
“It’s been an OK place — more than OK,” Taylor said. “I like my job,” he said. “There are times when its been very tough. When Smith Corona left town and Wal-Mart came in, there have been times when I didn’t take a paycheck for a little while. That makes your wife go crazy ...The downside, I can’t afford health insurance. There’s not enough cash flow for health care.”
He’s on his wife’s insurance. And he doesn’t have a special 401K package. “I have been here 33 years. I can’t retire. My wife, a school teacher, has been there for 30 years. She can retire. I will retire when I am 67, when the government says I can retire.”On the plus side: his “loyal, loyal customer base.”
He and his staff of four work hard to treat people right, he said.
“My business depends on word of mouth,” he said. “Customer services starts at the curb. It doesn’t start with the door. I have so many people that say, ‘thank you so much for shoveling the sidewalk.’ A guy came in with a wife with a walker. They said we couldn’t come in here if the snow was here.”
Every day Taylor shovels show or sweeps his sidewalk.
And he has a special focus in footwear.
“We sell shoes that feel good, from the moment you put them on,” he said. The most popular shoes he’s carried he’s sold there since 1993 — for men, Rockports. The most popular women’s shoe is the Hush Puppy Bounce.
A woman brought her granddaughter there from a foot doctor. Taylor saw she was wearing shoes that were too small.
“She had these terrible things from Payless.”
The girl put the shoes on from Sarvay’s and she said, “These feel better already.”
“It took three to four questions to make her life better. That’s the thing that makes it rewarding,” Taylor said.
“I want things to be comfortable first and foremost. But if they wear out (too quickly), you don’t get what you paid for them. But I want to have them for the long haul.”
He looks for quality shoes that cost around $90, a price that won’t kill a budget in the Cortland market. And he would like people to buy roomier shoes, not tight shoes.
“You try, you try, you try, every day, every day to get people to get bigger shoes. ‘Oh no, I am not a size 11,’” they say. “People come in: I always wear 7. ‘OK — but not always.You should try things on and not get your mind lost in what size you wore when you were a kid.”
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