Success and longevity are not easy to obtain in the world of business. However, honesty and dedication to the community have helped this family-owned business establish itself as a staple in Crystal Lake for over a century.
It’s not just the wide selection of shoes that keeps generations of families coming back to Heisler’s Bootery, 50 N. Williams St., in downtown Crystal Lake. Trust and quality service have been integral to this business since its founding more than a century ago.
For 115 years, Heisler’s Bootery has thrived through honest business practices and generational relationships. Today, the iconic shoe store’s longtime owner remains tenacious and focused on the future.
“It’s more than just making a living; it’s providing a service,” says Jim Heisler, the store’s third-generation owner.
The racks at this family-owned shoe store boast a variety of footwear from slippers and loafers to snow boots, dress shoes and work boots. There are shoes from well-known brands like Clarks, SAS, Red Wing and Florsheim. To complement, there’s a selection of accessories including socks, purses, boot oils and shoe polish.
Going beyond simply selling footwear, Heisler’s team specializes in finding the perfect fit to accommodate needs such as hammer toes, bunions, plantar fasciitis and peripheral neuropathy. It’s one of many small ways Heisler’s Bootery stays true to its heritage.
“Growing up, I remember salesmen would come in to show Grandpa or Dad shoes they might sell in the store,” says Heisler. “Grandpa would pick up a sample shoe and bend it and smell the leather to determine the quality of the leather.”
The store began in 1908 with Heisler’s grandfather, Hungarian immigrant John Heisler Sr., who started a horse harness and shoe repair store on Woodstock Street in downtown Crystal Lake. Before that, John Sr. had a job cutting ice on the city’s namesake lake, around what’s now Main Beach.
When the ice “became rotten,” Heisler says, his grandfather found work repairing shoes at the local hardware store owned by his friend, Ben Raue. Through Raue’s generosity, John Sr. established himself as an expert with leather, and the rest is history.
“He was a very likable guy,” says Jim Heisler, as he turns the pages of his grandfather’s notebook, titled “The Art of Making Harnesses Successfully.” John Sr.’s oil-stained fingerprints are still in the book.
John Sr. eventually passed down ownership to his son, Leonard, and in 1965 Heisler’s moved to its current location on Williams Street, about a block away.
Jim Heisler assumed ownership from his father, Leonard, in 1999. Before that, he’d spent 15 years as a school band director. He invested summers and weekends at the shoe store learning the business.
The world of retail shoes has changed immensely over the past century, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the Heisler family’s commitment to customer service. In fact, Heisler believes his top priority is finding the perfect-fitting shoe for each customer.
“If you’re the customer, you might know the look of the shoe you want, but I want to make sure it also is the right fit,” he says. “I don’t want anybody spending their money on something that doesn’t fit.”
Heisler has trained his employees not to take someone’s word for the size they wear. Each customer is measured and invited to take advantage of the store’s cutting-edge 3-D foot scanner. This state-of-the-art orthopedic machine scans a person’s feet and records data like the typical length and width as well as pressure points, arch height, girth and stride.
“It’s the latest fitting tool and it’s a big help,” says Heisler. “It helps you know your product and fit. For instance, people come in who may have always worn a size seven, but we might determine that’s not their actual size. We’re just trying to do a better job of fitting people.”
Heisler believes his business is about far more than just selling shoes. What continues to separate this family-owned business from its big-box competitors is the level of service, trust and customer loyalty that make this more of a personal care service than a retailer.
“Now and then, somebody will say, ‘Heisler, you better not go out of business. I don’t know what we would do,’” says Heisler. “And really, what are those people going to do? You get to know your barber or mechanic and see their work, trust them and keep going back year after year. Well, it’s the same way with our shoe customers.”
Heisler Bootery has served multiple generations of family members and established long-lasting relationships not only with residents but with local companies, some of whom depend upon Heisler’s Bootery to supply footwear required to do the job. One such company, TC Industries, began as a producer of terra cotta and created the facade of Heisler’s current storefront. A century later, the manufacturer is a specialist in heat-treated metals.
“They buy shielded heavy safety boots from me,” says Heisler. You’ve got to be protected in that business, and since they work three shifts, I deliver the boots to the company.”
Heisler demonstrates the same philosophy in his community work. For 26 years he served on the McHenry County Board and was readily available to constituents. Whether he was speaking about shoes or the community’s needs, he had the mindset of honesty, customer service and availability.
In addition to Heisler’s Bootery, Heisler and his son, Jason, also own and operate Red Wing dealerships at 1275 N. Randall Road, in Crystal Lake; 2692 DeKalb Ave., in Sycamore; and 2210 Illinois Route 120, in McHenry. The Red Wing stores focus on footwear for work and carry brands such as Irish Setter and Red Wing.
These stores also prioritize finding the right fit, which means using a 3-D scanner to measure foot size and stride, with suggestions on the best type of boot for the work environment.
Heisler stresses the importance of knowing your community – what people’s needs are – and their wants.
While he maintains that he’s not ready to retire, he is looking forward to following in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps by passing on full ownership to Jason and his daughter, Jody. Heisler hopes to spend more time traveling and enjoying life with his wife, Rebecca.
Heisler remains optimistic about the future and the ways his longstanding ties and dedication can keep the 115-year-old business striding forward.
“You just have to stay the course,” says Heisler. “We’re selling to grown-ups now who came in here as kids for their shoes. We care about them. They’re our neighbors.”