For 97 years, Fremont’s Main Street has always had a Buck’s Shoe Store.
The store was part of a chain of shoe retailers started by a man named Earl Buck in 1922. The chain started in Omaha in the early 1900s. At its height in the 1930s, the company had more than 30 stores across the Midwest. Now there are only two stores left.
And come May, those will also close their doors.
Kirk Brown and his wife Mollie own the remaining two Buck’s Shoe Stores — the Fremont location and a recently opened branch in Omaha. But a few months ago, the Browns made the decision to close the stores, citing well-reported challenges to brick-and-mortar retailers across the country, particularly due to the rise of online shopping.
“Retail is just dramatically changing,” Kirk Brown said. “People are buying on the internet, and it’s just becoming harder and harder for brick and mortar retail stores to stay in business.”
The store has a clearance sale right now, and while Brown says they haven’t set an exact last day of business, he anticipates the store will be closed by late April or early May. The building at 550 N. Main St. is up for sale, Brown said.
“It’s a huge blow,” Brown said. “A big chunk of retail and history. I think it goes along with when Schweser’s closed a couple years ago. It’s hard for smaller towns. But it’s not just Fremont, there’s a lot of retail that’s closing in big cities, too.”
The decision to close the store is a painful one for Brown, whose family’s history is deeply intertwined with the history of Buck’s Shoes.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’ve been selling shoes since I was 12, so it’s been my whole life. The history of the store and of the family and stuff, it’s been hard.”
His father, F. Douglas Brown, started working at the store in Hastings, ultimately shifting his work to the Omaha office just after World War II, Brown says.
Around that time, Buck was nearing retirement, selling off his stores to managers and employees. The elder Brown purchased the Fremont location in 1964, when it shared space in the building that now houses Sampter’s.
In 1986, Kirk purchased the store from his father. And in 1994, he moved the store to its current location, the building on the corner of Sixth and Main streets.
Until 2016, the Fremont location was the last surviving Buck’s Shoes. That year, the Browns decided to open a second store in Omaha.
But with increasing challenges to the retail sector, Kirk Brown says the stores were having a difficult time competing. Many of the store’s vendors had their own online retail operations, he added.
The footwear industry certainly hasn’t been untouched by the challenges facing brick-and-mortar retailers across the country. In February, the national chain Payless ShoeSource declared bankruptcy for the second time in three years and announced it would be closing more than 2,000 stores.
That’s part of at least 5,800 retail stores across the country that are expected to close in 2019 as part of what some call a “retail apocalypse” that has been trending in the United States over the past few years, according to a March 21 report from Business Insider.
Brown says he believes that Buck’s offered a personal touch that’s hard to find when shopping online.
“We always personally fit our customers, and one thing that we were able to do that people are never going to be able to do off the internet, we could customize shoes if we needed to,” he said. “If a shoe was a little tight, we could stretch it. If a shoe was a little big, we had ways to adjust it to fit the foot better. We were able to recommend things knowing the customer’s foot, knowing our products of what would work best for them.”
Brown says he’s still looking to see what his next steps are. He’d be interested in doing something in development or with a non-profit, he said. He said he hopes that people begin to return to the personal approach of brick-and-mortar retail.
“It’s a changing thing, and it’s really sad,” he said. “I think there’s a place for brick and mortar retail stores.”
“We were told that people are going to come back to wanting service and wanting that,” he added. “I always wanted to think that that was going to happen. I think at some point maybe people are going to realize that, but it may be too late at that point.”