Longevity in business is no small feat, but it’s something this family-owned shoe store has achieved through its dedication to serving customers.
Longevity in business is an accomplishment for anyone, but it’s something Heisler’s Bootery, 50 N. Williams St. in Crystal Lake, has aplenty. Through 111 years of serving its hometown, the business has supported four generations, persevered through two world wars and weathered constant ups and downs in the economy. What’s the secret?
“My secret to longevity is I don’t give up; that’s it,” says Jim Heisler, current owner of Heisler’s Bootery. “There are so many obstacles that jump in front of retailers or any business person, and the secret is you can’t give up. You just know there’s an answer. And you keep trying.”
Heisler’s Bootery began in March 1908 when Hungarian immigrant John Heisler Sr., a recent transplant to Crystal Lake, started a shoe shop and horse harness business in what was then a quiet, mostly rural railroad town. He had just enough leather and some tools he had saved from cutting ice, a gig that, at the time, was big business on the city’s namesake water body. When Heisler was laid off with about 200 other ice cutters, he resolved to go into business for himself forever afterward.
In time, John Heisler’s son, Leonard, took over the store, and he passed the reins to his sons, Jim and John, in 1999 just shortly before his death.
Leonard’s wife, Dorothy, remained active in the business until her death in 2012 at age 94.
Jim Heisler still has his grandfather’s old tools, the same ones used more than a century ago at a bench lent by a friend. Heisler still remembers watching his grandfather use these tools, back when he was growing up and milling around the shop.
The tools are displayed as a way to remember to the shop’s early days.
The reminders of Dorothy are still there, too, her china cabinet on display at the Bootery and tiny shoes arranged inside. Dorothy’s chair and trademark pink purse are there, too.
Jim had been serving as a full-time high school band director for about 15 years when his father tapped him to assume the reins of the Bootery. Today, he’s working with his own son, Jason, as a part-time partner.
Jim still remembers being inside the original shop on Woodstock Street, facing the railroad tracks. Back in those days, the store mainly sold shoes, though the Heislers could help with minor fixes as needed. However, when they moved to a much larger building on Williams Street in 1965, it came with a shoe repair shop, which is still there today. Jim’s father decided not to compete with their neighbor and instead focused solely on shoes.
The market has changed dramatically over the decades, but one thing that hasn’t changed at Heisler’s Bootery is a dedication to hands-on customer service.
“We’re still one of the old ‘sit and fit’ kind of shoe stores,” Jim says. “There are not many of us.”
Heisler says his team tries its best to accommodate ordinary, everyday needs as well as a variety of foot problems that may require specialized shoes. They’ll even go so far as to stretch or soften certain parts of a new shoe to make it more comfortable.
It’s not just about selling shoes “straight out of the box,” Heisler says. It’s service that distinguishes this family-owned store from the big-box retailers who might be reluctant to fix a “little problem” on a new shoe.
Heisler’s Bootery remains a significant fixture in downtown Crystal Lake, but it’s also branching out from its longtime home. Over the past few decades, the Heislers have embraced the city’s suburban growth by expanding their operations, first with a dedicated Red Wing store on Randall Road. The Red Wing brand specializes in safety shoes, industrial footwear needs and other work shoes, and it’s a favorite among public servants including firefighters and police officers.
A few years after opening the outlet on Randall Road, the Heislers opened another Red Wing store, this one in McHenry at 2210 Illinois Route 120. They opened another store in Sycamore, on DeKalb Avenue, a few years after that.
These days, with managing multiple stores, Heisler says it’s challenging to keep up with numerous demands.
“One of my biggest challenges was that I just retired from being a county board member in McHenry County, and I was doing that for 26 years,” he says. “It eats up a lot of time when you’re trying to be a good board member, meet all of those obligations and run an everyday retail business. And now that I’m off the board, it’s still very busy.”
He finds it’s important to stay consistent, to know what customers want and have it ready for them. Shoe selling is, after all, a people business.
Heisler has also found it pays to do your research, to know what it is you’re getting into before you make a leap.
“Talk to a lot of people in the trade you’re thinking of getting into, and understand the big picture – not just your close neighbors,” he says.
Working in the same building for more than half a century can bring its own challenges in business. A few years ago, Heisler committed to restoring the store’s interior and its historical facade.
Preparing for a spruce-up, Heisler knew some things were important to keep, like the original maple flooring inside the building. Other things could go more easily, like the plaster that was cleaned off the original brick walls in the fitting area, creating a more modern touch.
Heisler took the opportunity to redesign his store’s logo, update the outdoor signage and install a new check-out counter. It’s crafted from a slab of oak Heisler says he’d been saving for several years, waiting for just the right moment.
“I’m so proud of seeing the building refurbished,” he says.
Just like Heisler’s business, the white-glazed terra cotta tiles on the building’s exterior enjoy local roots, having been formed by Crystal Lake’s American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. at the turn of the century.
“They invented it after the Chicago Fire, and you’ll see it in many important buildings in Chicago and everywhere in Rockford,” says Heisler.
After a century of wear and tear, though, the beautiful terra cotta was showing its age.
“Most technicians who know how to repair it are not around anymore,” Heisler says. “It’s not like tuck-pointing brick. It’s a quite different operation. We were able to find some restoration artists who could do the work. It took three months to repair the whole thing. It looks beautiful.”
Given his family’s long history in town, Heisler is also somewhat of a history buff. When Crystal Lake celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1986, Heisler wrote the preface for a pictorial history book to commemorate the occasion.
Keeping a business successful and long-lasting means it’s important never to give up, says Heisler, who frequently recalls the words of his father: “When you rest, you rust, so keep moving.”
“If you had good teachers, just remember their advice because it can really help get you through,” he says. “A lot of good influences on me stem from being here in northern Illinois and having a lot of good people around me. I feel very fortunate.”