Finding the Perfect Shoe

by Mae Gilliland Wright

For 99 years and counting, Moser’s Shoes has dedicated itself to the “comfort business.”

If you grew up in the Peoria area sometime in the past century, chances are you’ve visited Moser’s Shoes at least once. Located on Southwest Adams Street, the longstanding retail shop on Peoria’s south side is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2018. In the decades since its founding, shoes—and the feet that wear them—have gone through some changes.

The same year Moser’s Shoes opened its doors, shoe manufacturers were rushing to improve the footwear of World War I soldiers fighting in the trenches of Western Europe. In 1918, American manufacturers released a new type of boot that included waterproofing, helping to protect their feet from diseases caused by wet conditions in the trenches. Today, we know this type of shoe as a “trench boot.” Meanwhile, women’s boots were also going through changes. As hemlines began to rise, the high-button boots of the Edwardian era fell out of style, in favor of sleeker shoes with curved heels. The Roaring Twenties would soon bring Mary Janes, pump shoes and the ubiquitous tennis shoe.

Though the styles have changed, the basic needs have not. Over the years, manufacturers have learned ways to make our feet more comfortable, with special attention to the needs of each individual. A store clerk who stands for hours at a time has very different support needs than a teacher working with energetic preschoolers or an office worker in front of a desktop computer. The wrong type of shoe can lead to back pain and foot problems—and with a dizzying array of options, it’s easy to make the wrong choice. So when a customer walks through the doors at Moser’s Shoes, their staff has just one goal: finding the perfect shoe.

Generations of Family
Steve Fawley may not carry the Moser name, but he is a direct descendent of John Moser, who was born in Germany around the turn of the 20th century. “His father told him, ‘There’s nothing for you here,’” he explains. “So they put him on a boat and sent him to the United States.” He eventually found his way to Chicago, where a German society alerted him to an open position for a cobbler, 170 miles downstate in Peoria.

Moser was just 16 years old when he started working for the shoe store U. Wys & Son in 1918. The building, later home to Illinois Furniture, is just a few doors down from the current location of Moser’s Shoes. “He worked there until he was in his 50s, when the owner of that store passed away,” Fawley explains. Although Moser offered to buy the business from Wys’ widow, she refused.

But Moser still needed an income. Upon finding a vacant space on the same block as his previous employer, he quickly opened the doors to his new shop. It is incredible, Fawley adds, that his great-grandfather opened a new shoe store in his mid-50s. “He had already spent 40 years working,” he notes.

When it opened, the shop offered only men’s shoes and repairs, but as the years passed, Moser’s Shoes began to offer more options, including women’s shoes and for a while, children’s shoes. Eventually, Moser’s son, John Moser, Jr., took the reins of the business.


John Moser, Jr., second-generation business owner
 

“We called him Jack… He ran [Moser’s] with my dad and aunt,” Fawley explains. When his father, James Fawley, and aunt, Frances Ragains, took over the business, the Moser name was no longer “officially” associated with the store. “Dad’s mother was a Moser, but that was her maiden name. The Moser men didn’t have any sons,” he notes. Though they did not share the Moser name, “they were always called the Moser kids their entire lives, even though they were Fawleys.”

Fawley is the fourth generation to run the family business, having grown up working in the store. “I came into the picture in 1981… right out of high school,” he recalls. “I’ve always kind of worked here.” While several of his relatives have also put in time at Moser’s, they all moved on to other things. “I took over running the day-to-day business after my cousin moved to Hawaii in 1987, and bought the business around 12 years ago.” Fawley pauses and adds with a smile, “That’s the history… it’s been kind of long and drawn-out.”

A World of Comfort
Moser’s Shoes is in the “comfort business,” according to Fawley. “Doctors like us because we’ll fit people up,” he adds. Whether due to car accidents, strokes or other medical needs, Fawley has years of experience fitting specialty shoes around a variety of medical braces and socks, and the rest of Moser’s staff is dedicated to finding a comfortable solution for their customers—even if it’s not always the most fashionable. “We’ve done enough fittings to know that we can look at someone and say, ‘We’ll have to do this… You won’t like it, but at least you’ll have a pair of shoes to walk in!’”

Work boots are among their best-selling items, and Moser’s Shoes carries a wide range of them, including the popular Red Wing brand, a Minnesota-based company founded in 1905. Factories often send their workers there to find shoes that not only improve their performance, but protect their feet. “They get a voucher for safety toes or metatarsal guards—a hard piece of metal over the top of the shoe,” he explains.

In terms of comfort, Fawley says customers love their selection of New Balance and SAS footwear. “A lot of times you can put those shoes on customers and they’ll say, ‘Ahh, that feels great!’” Customers with narrow or sensitive feet will find these shoes especially comforting. “We carry the ones that give you more stability,” he notes, “and they can make a world of difference.”


A second Moser’s Shoes location at 325 Fulton St. in downtown Peoria, 1934
 

Though they carry narrow and regular sizes, Fawley says he has seen a noticeable trend toward larger shoes—both in length and width. “We prefer to carry women’s sizes 11, 12 and sometimes 13. Even our sample shoes are bigger,” he explains, referring to shoes that are considered to represent an average foot. “They used to be size four or five, but now they are seven and eight.”

He says a lot of factors can lead to this, and as we age, variables like weight and pregnancy can cause one’s foot to grow in length or width. “In our men’s business, we thrive from sizes 14 to 17,” he notes. “If a guy comes in to get 14EEE work boots and he wants to see a pair of tennis shoes, I should be able to show you about 20 pairs of 14EEEs from New Balance,” he notes. “We have that many.”

In addition to casual shoes, work boots, running shoes and tennis shoes, Moser’s carries sandals and house shoes year-round—while many stores only carry them at certain times of the year. Fawley says he never can guess what any given customer will like, especially younger ones. “Students will come in from Bradley University and say, ‘Oh, these are cool’—and I just sold them to an 80-year-old lady,” he chuckles. “They think it’s cool and they can pull it off.”

On the Right Foot
One of the primary reasons doctors like to send patients to Moser’s, Fawley says, is because most people don’t really know what is best for them. “There’s a lot of junk on the market,” he explains. “Some people will buy something soft—it feels great on the foot, but you have no stability.” That’s why Moser’s tends to carry a better grade of shoes. “If you can get somebody in a good pair of shoes, they have trouble going back to a cheap pair,” he notes. “It’s funny… once customers are around 35 years old, they realize they need to buy better shoes.”

When a new customer walks through their doors, Moser’s staff will immediately measure the length and width of their feet. The staff has nearly a century of collective experience, ensuring reliable recommendations to their customers. “We can usually get people started on the right path,” Fawley says. And while they carry specialty supports, the goal is to make the customer comfortable without them. “Other stores want to sell you supports every time they sell a pair of shoes… [but] not everybody needs that,” he notes.

In the age of Zappos, Amazon and chain stores, the kind of personal customer experience offered by Moser’s Shoes is increasingly rare. Although online options have grown in popularity, it’s rare that a customer gets the order right the first time—sometimes even settling for a bad fit, just to avoid the hassle of returns. And while people can try on shoes at chain stores, their employees often do not have the same years of experience.

Each foot has its own needs, and just as customers are willing to sit down and get the right pair of reading glasses, finding the right shoes can make a huge difference. “We’re more of a sit-down shoe store,” Fawley explains. “We try to listen to what the customer needs and fit them up to the best of our ability.” And they’ve been doing it now for 99 years… and counting. iBi

Moser’s Shoes is located at 2027 SW Adams Street in Peoria. For more information, visit mosersshoe.com or call (309) 674-4400.

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