First impressions: 30-foot ceiling, an abundance of natural light, exposed brick and ductwork, wood floors, rack after rack of running apparel and, along the north wall, running shoes galore on display - dozens of models from Nike, New Balance, Asics, Reebok and a handful of other manufacturers. Shoes for women and men, elite runners and beginners, people with biomechanics from good to flawed.
Welcome to the new home of Movin' Shoes at 528 S. Park, a few doors north of its previous location. Motivated by a lease that was due to expire in 2008 and his desire to avoid relocation to some "freakin' mall in Fitchburg or some place I don't want to be," owner Karl Harter bought and demolished the existing two-flat to make way for his new emporium.
"It's a terrific location for me," he says during a recent tour of his relocated retail space. Park Street is enjoying a renaissance, he observes, and he wants to be part of that.
Also a true-crime author (Winter of Frozen Dreams), Harter, 55, takes pride in the new building. He sought to fit it into the esthetics of other buildings in the neighborhood. "I didn't want to gentrify it too much," he says, and he wanted to use recycled materials when feasible. The floors are Douglas fir planks recovered from Wisconsin barns. The exposed bricks on the first floor came from a demolished Chicago factory.
One of Harter's friends, the developer Randy Alexander, designed the new space. Its façade is dominated by a sculptural steel column that has oxidized to a rusty patina, and by a great bank of windows. From the inside, facing east, the windows afford a broad view of Park Street, the sky above and an ascending sun. Built by Ruedebusch Development & Construction, the new space still has a scent derived from some combination of fresh paint, varnish and mortar - and the aroma of all those new shoes on display.
But the Movin' Shoes business model remains rooted in the store's modest origins in the basement of the old WSA Pharmacy on State Street's 600 block, where the store began as a pegboard display with three pairs of shoes. Harter digs into his files and pulls out the store's first invoice, dated Sept. 24, 1973. "We were the second Nike account in the state of Wisconsin," he recalls.
Full disclosure: I've been a Movin' Shoes customer since 1975, when the late yoga instructor Roger Eischens, who co-founded the store, sold me my first pair of Nike Waffle Trainers. At a sequence of Park Street addresses, it has remained my default destination for running shoes and advice.
Harter was another early customer, until Eischens' original business partner left to open a Movin' Shoes store in California. "Roger was teaching at the university," Harter recalls, "so he had an income, and this was sort of a hobby. He said he needed a partner, and I said, sure, I've got money saved up from teaching high school. So I can work and not have to draw any money either."
Instead, they put everything back into the store and kept prices low. From the start, Movin' Shoes has been committed to sell running shoes at 10% to 15% below suggested retail price.
"The truth is that in the beginning, every customer was a friend," Harter remembers. "We'd run with them, so it didn't seem to make sense to try to maximize your profit. It made sense to try to make a fair profit, so that you could have a decent living."
It was the right approach in the right place. "Madison's always been a terrific running town," Harter says. "The university has had great runners. High schools. You think of all the terrific runners that have come out of here. The Olympians. It's really impressive. And they're all Wisconsin grown."
Many of them have worked for Movin' Shoes. Harter now employs four full-timers and 18 part-timers - a mix of elite runners, retirees "and then slugs like me who run because they like to do it." The staff is schooled in helping customers narrow their search for a shoe suited to their running style.
"Y'know, sometimes I think only a place like Madison could foster a business like this," Harter reflects. "It was completely unconventional. The hours were wacky. Who opens at 11 o'clock, y'know? But we had another life. I was writing and Roger was studying yoga and we were not in this to make all the money we could. We were in this so we could live the kind of life we wanted to live."
That, he suggests, is what has kept Movin' Shoes moving for more than 30 years.