This interview was done at the L&H Shoe Shop in VALLEY CITY, ND. Owners Jill Christensen and Ruth Larson were present.
In 1912 or 1913, a shoe shop was started by Martin Swanson at 125 5th Avenue. The shop sold in 1924 to John Konen, and then Konen sold it to Roy Elstrom in 1939. During Elstrom’s ownership, new equipment with modern machinery was purchased, and the shop was enlarged. In 1949 Harold Hoff started working for Elstrom. Three years later, in 1956, James Larson began to work. Hoff and Larson worked together for Elstrom until 1956. It was at this time that they purchased the shop from Elstrom and renamed it L&H Shoe Shop. In 1968 or 1969, Larson bought out Hoff’s half.
James, who passed away three years ago, was the husband to Ruth Larson and father to Jill Christensen. The business has been owned by the Larson family, with Christensen taking over in 2001. Since her husband’s passing, Ruth Larson continues to take orders and help her daughter in the shop.
Christensen, who worked alongside her father and mother since the age of 11, described the connection she has with her family. “We have always been there for each other; we never fight and work well together.” This statement showed as the interview continued. Each encouraging and giving compliments. Christensen went to college but returned to work with her father, realizing that’s where she was meant to be.
The history of the L&H Shoe Shop was remarkable. As Larson and Christensen showed me around, I gained a better understanding and appreciation for the skill it takes to run a shoe shop.
L&H to date repairs more than just shoes. Other items they listed but are not limited to are canvas, shoes, zipper repair, and replacement. They also patch clothing, hem jackets/workwear, repair luggage, purses, baseball mitts, wedding dresses, prom dresses, etc.
Because the family partook and enjoyed hunting and fishing, they sell guns, ammo, fishing and hunting supplies, shoe care products, Red Wing Shoes, and Tony Lama Boots on the retail side.
The equipment dates back to when Elstrom owned the business but is in great working condition. With the long machine in the back called, “The Finisher,” Christensen can buff boots and other shoes with rubber and brush rollers. To the left of the finisher sits a “Landis K Shoe Stitchery Machine.” It’s a very rare machine with many working parts.
The last time it was repaired, the cost was five hundred dollars per hour. However, the strong needle repairs the lacing around the soles of boots and is necessary for proper shoe repair. Towards the front and left of the shop, there are two, “Singer Sewing Machines.” One is a long arm, and the other is a short arm. Originally both ran by a treadle but have since been modernized to run by electricity through a motor. These sewing machines repair the majority of items that come into the shop.
Besides the equipment, the original ceiling tile, which is designed tin, is still visible in the back room. Larson explained how she enjoyed looking at the tin because it symbolized not everything changes. The tin is one of many signs of an original and long-standing building.
Once there were businesses in the basement and upstairs throughout the building, but no more. Over time small businesses have become more obsolete as family members don’t want to take over, or the economy has prevented them from continuing.
The neon light that hangs in the front window of L&H is proof. This light came from a business next door in the basement that made neon signs. Now there are no remnants that company ever existed besides the lights in a few businesses left across town.
Preserving history through our small-town shops is the key to keeping America alive and retaining the idea that we as a country can build something from the ground up.
Christensen and Larson mentioned an antique sign which said, “Shoe Shine Repairing.” To their knowledge, the sign has been there since the beginning when Swanson first opened a shoe shop. The sign is around 100 years old and used to light up. It hung above the awning on the corner but was taken down in 2018 due to a bolt breaking. “I haven’t decided yet to sell or restore it,” Christensen said. The two have had substantial offers from buyers but realize what a piece of history it is. Not just for their shop but also for the town.
Family-owned businesses are the core of a small community, and as Christensen stated, “They’re the heart of the local economy.” With the number dropping from 59,000 shoe repair shops nationwide in 1945 to less than 7,000 at present. “This is a dying trade,” Larson said.
During this interview, it was evident that Larson and Christensen took great pride in their store. “A man did an article about our shop many years ago and said it was the cleanest shop around,” Larson stated while putting things in their rightful place.
Their attitude about the type of work they sometimes had to do was honest and showed a positive leadership type. They said, “When it’s something hard we say, just get it done, just do it.” I thought this was amazing as our modern culture sometimes says the opposite when it comes to hard work. Doing something that’s difficult consistently is a skill on its own.
Looking at Christensen’s hands as she turned them over, I could see the callouses and scrapes, indicating long hours of grueling work. However, she didn’t complain. I thought it beautiful to see the heart and soul of someone’s labor right there in their hands for everyone to see.
People, at times, take for granted that a business, a place will always be there. In Christensen’s case, this vital business will cease to be once she retires with no one else to take over. When asking if she planned to apprentice, Christensen had a hard time answering. “If you take time to train someone and teach them this skill, they don’t stay. So, all that time, I’ve now just waisted. Hiring someone isn’t feasible, so I will work as long as I can.” And that was it; in a couple of sentences, a shop’s fate was determined. As a customer, it’s hard to think of this Shoe Shop, closing. The Larson family has invested their entire life and time to this place and our small town.
But this story is not just about one shoe shop in small-town America. Businesses need locals and their support to keep their doors open. The families that own them are more than business owners; they are friends. A community that supports each other grows and prospers. This includes young people taking up forgotten and dying trades.
To end, I would like to encourage you, if you have that little shop or business in your town, why not stop in, say hi and let them know how much you appreciate what they’ve done for your community. You never know, it might be the difference in them keeping their doors open.
Great story! I have things repaired by L&H periodically. Always reasonable priced. You can tell Jill takes great pride in her work.
Thank you, Chuck. Jill does indeed do a great job!
Nice story. I’d like to see it again. Wonder if the pleasant fragrance of leather continues.
Thanks for sharing this.
It still smells like leather, Chuck!