The Oldest Shoe Store in America and What We Can Learn from It

Dr. John Townsend

September 4, 2019

My wife Barbi and I recently returned from a combination trip of attending a close friend’s destination wedding, plus vacationing, both in the beautiful state of Maine. We stayed in the downtown area of the seaport village of Belfast. Across the street from us was a brick building with the sign: “Colburn Shoes: Oldest Shoe Store in America 1832.” 187 years. Now that is a run!

Since I do a great deal of work with family businesses, I had to find out their secret sauce. So we walked over and got to know Brian Horne, the father of the present owner, Colby, who purchased it from his dad a few years back. Brian was generous in providing me with time and information.

The story is that the Colburn family originally owned and operated the store for several generations, then the Horne family bought it from them a few generations ago, but kept the name. It has been in continual operation all that time. I asked Brian the secret to this sort of amazing longevity. He said it came down to 2 things:

  1. Keeping up with the product. Brian said shoe lines and styles are always changing, and someone has to continue researching what will work in the current market.
  2. Prioritizing great customer service. The Colburn staff spends a great deal of time with their customers, both local and vacationers like us. I observed that dynamic in a couple of trips to the store. They were engaging with the shoppers, asking questions and finding out what they were interested in.

I asked about internet competition with brick and mortar establishments. Brian said, “We had some scares in the beginning of that shift. But shoes seem to be a product that requires a tangible and personal shopping experience, so we have done all right.” Barbi and I were also impressed with our own personal shopping experience, enough so that she bought a couple of pairs of shoes, and I bought my first-ever Birkenstocks. See the photo of Brian, my Birks and me.

Now, on a leadership and business level, think about the two secret sauces. The first is task-related: knowing and having the right product. The second is people-related: connecting and communicating with people. It always boils down, ultimately, to these two.

We can all learn from the Colburn story. Go visit them on your next trip to Maine!

Best,

John

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