WAUPUN — A local shoe store is a legend, starting with Roy Brooks and the lean-to that held his first tiny shop at his house on Lincoln Street. Generations of area residents recall his personalized service and how he could pick the right shoe from a pile of inventory with a single grab.
That was in the 1930s, and Brooks Shoes & Repair has been going strong ever since. A new chapter began recently when Gary and Katie DeJager stepped forward to fill the shoes of former owners Nick and Carol Klein, becoming the fifth owners of the enterprise.
“The original store was across the street next to City Hall,” Gary said. “At some point after Mr. Brooks sold it, it got moved over here.”
Over some eight decades, the store has been a success, building a reputation for its full service and repairs — something hard to find in the advent of self-service and big box takeovers.
Still, Brooks Shoes & Repair thrives, meeting the needs of countless customers who either have a special need or who just want quality footwear at a reasonable price.
Although the DeJagers come from an agricultural background — running a successful dairy operation for nearly 25 years — taking on the enterprise fit like an old shoe.
“We are from Waupun and have lived in the area all our lives,” Gary said. “We know what it’s like to run a successful dairy business. We got out of that nine years ago and I’ve had several jobs working for other companies. Still, we were looking for other opportunities to run our own business and when we discovered this was for sale, we jumped at the opportunity.
“It was a left turn, but we’re always willing to learn something new.”
They had a connection to the Kleins, who know Gary’s parents.
“We came and talked to them, and pondered the opportunity for a while, and decided to go for it,” Gary said. “The city needs it and we didn’t want to see it go away. We want to continue the legacy of providing good shoes to area residents.
“We maybe didn’t have a passion for shoes in the past, but we do now. What we see here is the opportunity to help people. We have customers come in who have problems finding shoes that are comfortable — or even fit. Solving problems and helping people is the core of what we do here. That’s what we enjoy doing.”
They also learned the basics of shoe repair from the previous owners. Gary, being mechanically inclined, can turn his hand to almost any task. Employee Dan Sallach, who specializes in repairs, is also staying on, along with Gladys Montsma, who handles promotion and customer sales.
The Kleins did a major remodel in 2013, installing a copper ceiling and renovating the building that dates to the 1890s.
Plans at this time include continuing what the previous owners have done, and eventually making changes to meet the needs of their customers — both old and new.
“We’ll be learning the ins and outs to the business and as time goes on, we may tweak things as any business owner should,” Gary said. “What won’t change is providing full, personalized service to our customers.”
An example is a card file — not a spread sheet — that lists most customers’ names and a record of what they have purchased in the past.
“That’s part of what makes this store unique,” Gary said.
“We have customers who will say, ‘I want a pair exactly like the ones I bought before,’ and we can do that for them,” Katie said. “Being full service, we can also resole old shoes, add lifts for those who have a leg shorter than another one or some other requirement, or add a coat of protectant to the steel toes of boots for people who have to be on their knees a lot and a whole range of other services.”
“A good share of our business is custom-ordering shoes for people who are hard to fit,” Gary said. “They can come in and try them on and there’s no obligation to buy them if they aren’t happy. You don’t get that at the big box stores.”
Full service includes measuring feet, bringing the shoes to the customers as they sit in comfort and placing the shoes on the customers’ feet. Many are shocked to see something they have either not seen for years or may have never experienced.
Gary and Katie know that customers value that kind of attention, and time has proven that customers are willing to pay for something as essential as good footwear.
“We’re not about being the most expensive shoe store. We’re all about good shoes and an excellent fit,” Katie said. “Our customers know what we stand for and what the cost is going to be, because that’s what they’re looking for.”
“You get what you pay for, but we also make sure that customers get a lot of bang for their bucks,” Gary said.
Future plans include expanding the women’s shoe lines to meet demand for footwear that is both comfortable and stylish.
The new owners are up for the challenge, and plan to continue the long legacy of Mr. Brooks and all those who followed in his footsteps.
“We know we’ve got big shoes to fill,” Katie said.