By Their Bootstraps
Heisler’s Bootery has been around for 105 years by staying true its values of quality footwear and great customer service.
When John Heisler, a Hungarian immigrant, was laid off from harvesting ice off of Crystal Lake in March 1908, he went into making harnesses for horses. When the demand for harnesses dwindled, he started selling boots and shoes – a tradition his grandson Jim continues to this day, although the trade is a little different than it was in the 1900s.
Just before business hours on a March morning, Jim unlocks the door of Heisler’s Bootery at 50 N. Williams St. with a smile for a customer looking for “good walking shoes.”
He points out a display. Later, he explains, “There are shoes other than gym shoes you can wear; you don’t have to look too casual to be comfortable.”
Jim, who also runs Red Wing Shoes at 1275 Randall Road, measures customers’ feet the old-fashioned way and can point folks in the right direction for shoes whatever their profession. He knows what shoes work for what job. They carry everything from flexible Mary Janes for teachers to work boots for construction workers.
“It’s about your needs, not wants,” when it comes to the right shoe, he explained.
It’s also about customer service.
“People want to get taken care of [but in] self-service retail, there isn’t anyone there to help you make a decision,” he added. “In some of this bigger business, even if you wanted help, you can’t get it.”
Quality is another distinguishing factor of Heisler’s Bootery. Jim said growing up around the family business ensured he knew the business’ products well.
“When some shoe seller would come in [with an inferior product], I remember Dad (Leonard) saying, ‘That’s a bunch of belly leather,’ because he recognized it by the wrinkles,” Jim said. “I think that because of the foundation in the leather trade, it’s reflected in the stuff we choose to sell our customers.”
Political “Shoe” In
His prominence selling shoes and his family’s long history in the community helped land him on the McHenry County Board where he serves as vice chair.
“I got recruited [to run],” he recalled. “I had people come to me and sat me down here at the store. They said, ‘we want someone like you to run on the board.’ That happened in 1992 and I’ve been re-elected ever since. I just try to be a straight arrow in all my decisions and I’m still there.”
He was most recently re-elected last spring.
Laced with History
Crystal Lake is Jim’s home and he is passionate about McHenry County and Crystal Lake history. He can tell you all about the incorporation of the city of Crystal Lake and is excited about the centennial celebration, which kicks off next year.
But he’s proudest of his family history and that his grandfather was able to come here as an immigrant, build a business and evolve it to meet the community’s changing needs.
The business was located at several locations downtown, including on Woodstock Street where the Judith Svalander School of Ballet is now located.
They’ve been at the corner of Williams and Brink streets since 1968.
There is a display at the store of John’s tools for fixing shoes and making horse harnesses. When Jim was a child, he said he remembers watching his grandfather and his father using the tools of the trade, which have long been out of commission.
Smiling, he picks up the tools and talks about them.
Nearby the display are photo and newspaper clippings from the defunct Crystal Lake Herald. The building the store is located in was built in 1911 – there’s a posted clipping with the details of the building.
Memories fill the family business. The family matriarch, Jim’s mom Dorothy Anderson Heisler, died in December at 94. But her chair remains with her trademark pink purse perched on top of it.
The store’s recent display addition, Dorothy’s china cabinet, features hundreds of tiny shoes made from different materials. A birdhouse made out of a boot hangs near the store’s entrance.
Carrying the Torch
Jim plans on selling shoes and serving his community as long as he can.
“We care about the customers and personal service,” Jim said. “I think people appreciate dealing with the store’s owners than one four states away at a chain operation. I think people know we know shoes; they know they are going to get something that they can trust is good.”