FRANKLIN, La. (AP) " Walking into Meyer's Shoe Store in downtown Franklin is like taking a step back in time " and it is. The Friedman family has been merchants on Main Street since 1908. A front page ad on a replica of The Banner-Tribute dated April 29, 1959, reads, "A. Friedman & Son, 51 Years of Successful Merchandising in Franklin."
The shop's history started when Abraham Friedman established The Franklin Racket Store. His great-grandson, Henry Friedman still operates the four-generation business, one of two stores that served the community until downsizing several years ago. Henry Friedman will remain there with one employee until retirement.
"We had the department store across the street and my father bought this building in 1939 before he (later) went to fight in World War II," Friedman said.
In the remaining showroom business, the smell of leather lets you know you're in a shoe store, a familiar feeling that is worth taking advantage of while it remains. Window shopping only peaks customer's curiosity, but regular ones know why they are returning.
"We visit, we talk, we wait on them, I worry about selling shoes to someone having feet problems and even message them to check on how they are doing after they go home," Sharon Caviess, a 35-year employee said. "I was born and raised here so everybody knows me. There may be a lot of styles in a brand, but if a doctor recommends them, they don't tell you which one and there is a difference in shoes."
Caviess said you have to know which style and price level to buy. Just because you pay $125 doesn't mean they're going to last a year or two. The inside wears out. If not replaced, you need new feet, knees and back.
"I can just look at people and know they're walking around in bad shoes. I like to make sure my customers are satisfied with their shoes," Caviess said. "They're only getting one set of feet, knees and a back. You gotta make sure you take care of them. I don't make commission. I want to tell you for your own good, you've got the wrong shoes."
Customer service at Meyer's Shoe Store includes Friedman and Caviess, both experts in fitting shoes. Popularity of their brands and the generations of families coming in to shop have evolved into interstate commerce. Several costumers no longer live in the Teche Area, but even out-of-state customers call to order shoes " especially for their grandchildren.
Meyer's has a lot of children's shoes " the kind that support growing feet. Baby boomers can remember the days leading up to Easter Sunday when shopping for new shoes was a priority. Meyer's still has one of the largest selections of tiny shoes in Acadiana. It's a staple.
"My mom brought me here, I brought (my children) here and now I'm buying for my grandchildren," said Michele Chauvin, chief financial officer for the Civil Department of the St. Mary Parish Sheriff's Office. "You can come in, they'll measure your foot, try on shoes and they'll even let you take them on memo. I can get four or five pairs of shoes, take them home and let my husband try them on, bring back the ones he doesn't want. He (Friedman) writes it in the book and if you never bring them back, he sends you a bill."
After three generations shopping there, trust has been earned for this type of transaction. Emily Chauvin, 22, said she's shopped at Meyer's all her life.
"Whatever's in style, they'll be sure to buy them for us," said Emily Chauvin.
Michele Chauvin said Meyer's carries uniform school shoes for the private schools as well. She and her daughter were stopping by to purchase new shoes for her 1-year-old and 3-year-old grandchildren. They live in St. Louis but she buys their shoes at Meyer's in Franklin and mails them.
"We need to shop local and keep tax dollars here," Chauvin said. "I see it in the sheriff's office. Sales taxes are down, property taxes are down, so we need local shoppers."
Tourists are amazed that a store like Meyer's still exists.
Shopping is changing. As much as local tourism and government entities preach "Shop Local," some things about merchandising in small towns is beyond their control. A visit with Friedman paints a picture most advocates of living simple don't like to here. Progress is changing the way consumers do business.
At 67, Friedman knows a day will come when his family legacy will end.
"In the old days, your suppliers were courting you and wanting you to do business with them. Now they don't care. Not only that, some of them want to get rid of you because you're too small. It's one of the big challenges we face. They don't want to be bothered," he said.
Major brands want to sell 100,000 pairs of shoes not small quantities, he said. They now make their products available through business to business websites and don't come to stores. At one time, sales reps would line up to show their wares. But Friedman says that's not the case anymore.
That attitude coupled with the cost of keeping a sales rep on the road also has played into the reduction of product distribution made face to face. Shows are now fewer in number and in the biggest cities. Most product lines are there, but the expense is prohibitive for small retailers to attend.
"This (storefront) is not going to exist in five to ten years, I'll try to sell the business, but who knows if I'll be able to not just due to vendors, but because of the increase of online shopping," Friedman said.
The father of five children said he is happy to see his children succeeding with their gifts and talents, but without another generation interested in sustaining a dying breed " merchants " an end to an era must be bittersweet. Friedman said he never expected his children to follow in his footsteps, but without their interest and the change in retail since the days of his ancestors, there would be no reason to pass it on " but he is confident the retail store will be missed.
"I never really planned on (being in retail), I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I got married and moved to Dallas. My father, who died in 1979, needed my help, we made a decision. We moved back and I started helping him. When the door closes a new door opens," he said. "I like supporting my town. I've seen everything and done everything. Things have turned 180 degrees."
The comments Friedman shared about the future of small town retailer experience have more to do with global merchandising than the local customer base.
What customers will not find online, and something Meyer's provides its customers, is the knowledge of how to fit a shoe or help someone with foot problems to find the right shoe.
"I know about shoes and how to fit people with certain problems. That's why people come here. Basically, if they have a problem, we know what kind of shoe to put them in," Friedman said. "You can wear this one and hurt, or you can wear this one and feel better."
Merchants once built the country by providing the goods pioneers needed to sustain their families. They built homes and businesses, built community. Now it's time for the community to support the local merchants that still find customer service the reason to exist " for as long as they are able to survive.
Information from: The Daily Iberian, http://www.iberianet.com