30 December 2011

Reader Questions: Old Shoes

I find nearly everything I own in a thrift store. While it's true that years of experience and practice have led me to a fair degree of success in this, the fact remains that some items are simply easier to come by than others. Take ties, for example. Once you stumble into a honey-hole, you tend to find that 99 cent neckwear is fairly abundant. They don't experience the wear and tear of other items, being purely decorative. Shoes, on the other hand, are another beast entirely.
Reader Don asks:
I have a question about buying shoes. I've read about reshaping and all of that, so I know there are some restoration options, but how worn is too worn? Any tips on buying used dress shoes? All I've seen around town so far are very creased and discolored.

Good quality shoes in good condition are perhaps the hardest thing of all for a man to find in a thrift shop. For obvious reasons, shoes are the clothing item exposed to the harshest wear and tear. We walk in them, on pavement. We scuff them against things. They get sweaty on the inside. We wear them on our feet for extended periods of time, often for periods lasting years. A favorite pair is a treasured item, even for people who don't realize or won't admit it, and so they are often the last things we want to part with. Men tend to wear their shoes until they fall to pieces.

Besides all this, shoes are submitted to undue abuse in the processing phase between donation and selling time. Think of it: a guy decides to donate some shoes, and they get tossed in a garbage bag along with a bunch of other stuff. The thrift shop gets them, and tosses them loose in an industrial hamper with a million other pairs. They may get sorted through a number of these bins, always tossed in with a heap of other shoes. Maybe they get tied together in pairs by the laces. Maybe not. Eventually, they go out for sale some place. A sordid affair.

This may be bleak news for the man cracked enough (like me) to dedicate obscene amounts of time and effort into acquiring a closet full of the rich man's cast offs, but there is a bright side. Good shoes are made to last a long time, and hence are worth repair, and the best shoes tend to be owned by those who take care of them, and thus have more years left in them if given a little repair.

Quality leather can take a beating, so all is not lost. As with anything, look for quality and don't settle for junk. This is especially true with shoes. Not only do crappy shoes look bad and have a cheesy feel to them, they're uncomfortable as well. Steer clear of stuff that was crap in the first place...it will have only gotten crappier.

So, how worn is to worn is the real question. The answer depends largely on whether you have access to a good cobbler.  If the answer is yes, then it's a good bet that shoes that many might consider wrecked are your goldmine. Worn heels, holes in the sole, or soles breaking away from the shoe, as well as peeling linings or stitching that's come loose, are all things that your cobbler can put right. It won't be cheap, though, so you have to decide what you're willing to invest. I might buy a pair of quality shoes by Allen Edmonds or Alden for less than $10, then pay the cobbler up to $100 to repair them. For me, $110 is short change for fine shoes. $110 buys junk new at DSW. Catch my drift?

Some shoes are just over the hill. Avoid anything with holes or cracks in the leather itself. Creases in the leather are not always the kiss of death, as polish and mink oil, plus a good pair of cedar shoe trees, can usually fix this, but a hole is a deal breaker. The vast majority of shoes at thrift stores were worthless to begin with, and junk is junk. I won't buy it new, I certainly won't buy it old. The rule of persistence in thrift shopping is of exponential importance when it comes to shoes, but when it pays off, it tends to do so in spades. Be patient.

Having said all that, if there's one thing worth coughing up full retail for, besides the requisite socks and underwear, its good shoes. They may be expensive, but good ones will last a very long time, and your $15 suit and 99 cent tie will look infinitely better when complimented by proper shoes. In fact, I'm gearing up for a new pair or two myself, likely to be the topic of a new "Worth Every Penny" post.

So, in closing, George Harrison, on vinyl :

p.s. don't forget the sale in the Shop. 15% off all orders over $50 through midnight Saturday. Use discount code NEWYEAR2012 at checkout.


SUM said...

Just picked up a pair of Allen Edmonds shell cordovan Bradley's for $79 - no repairs required as they are barely worn in. So, I guess, that falls within your budget.

Anonymous said...

I go to the shoe repair shops and ask for shoes that were never picked up. Picked up a pair of Aldens for five bucks.

Stephen said...

Once you know your size in a particular brand, ebay is a good way to go. I recently bought an almost new pair of AE Park Avenues for $70.

@SUM, where did you get yours?

@Anon, I got some Church's black cap toes that way for $25.

notanymore said...

All of my dress shoes were originally worth anywhere between about $150 to $800. I had stupendous luck, in that the most I've paid on average is about $30 per item in the entire group.

Nothing has yet beaten the English made Crockett and Jones for Polo Ralph Lauren cordovan loafers I picked up for $7.50 in very, very good condition. Original price was $795.

Jho78 said...

Some of my best finds have been shoes. From shell cordovan longwings to Filson boots, AE Park Avenues to Bean Blucher mocs. And all between 5 and 15 bucks. I have you to thank for putting the idea of looking in thrift shops for the good stuff. Also, I really like the idea of asking for abandoned shoes in repair shops. Who knows what you might find.

ThriftyTeacher said...

Sometimes you must shop by neighborhood. By this, I mean going to thrift stores that receive a good portion of their merchandise from those who are financially well-off and rotate their wardrobe yearly with new items. I have found many nice shoes this way because donaters are cleaning out the closets for a new wardrobe. I recently bought a pair of Johnston and Murphy kiltie-tasseled loafers this way for a scant $9.25 with virtually minimal wear. The most I did was gave them a saddle soap cleaning and a good shoe shine with some Kiwi cordovan colored paste wax.
Sometimes you will find that certain thrift stores are good for shoes, while some are good for sports jackets, etc. Just take time scouting about and don’t get discouraged.
The gentleman that mentioned shoe repair shops as a source for shoes...thanks for the advice! I never thought of this so I will try my luck!

bostonhud said...

I got a pair of Cole Haan loafers a couple weeks ago for $12. They're going to need to be re-soled in a couple of months, and they're kinda tight, but a good deal none the less even if they dont work out.

Never thought of asking repair shops for unclaimed shoes- a very novel idea.

Jho78 said...

Oops. Edit: That should read, "I have you to thank for putting the idea of looking in thrift shops for the good stuff in my head."

I should know better than to type with a toddler on my lap.

ThriftyTeacher said...

If you are trying to stretch your shoes so that they are not too tight you may want to try this:

1.Mix an equal part of rubbing alcohol with an equal part of water to make a 50/50 solution.

2.Using a rag, wet the back of the shoe and the toe/front area of the shoe being sure to allow the solution to penetrate through the leather.

3.Place two-way (stretches width and length) shoe stretchers inside both shoes and allow the shoes to stretch for a few days.

4.Try them on after a few days of stretching. If they are still too tight, re-apply more solution and allow the shoes to stretch for a few more days by setting the shoe stretcher at a slightly larger setting to increase the amount of stretch.

Once you have them loose enough so that they are comfortable, invest in some good cedar shoe trees so that your shoes will remain comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's because I love in Wisconsin, but I find a lot of Allen Edmonds shoes in nice shape. My resolution for 2012 is to visit my local cobbler though. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Midwest is different than Boston, but I seem to find good shoes--mainly Allen Edmonds and old-school Imperial longwings with v-cleats--in good condition with fair regularity, certainly, more often than I find, say, good-quality suits, which I define as Brooks Brothers or better. Secondhand shoes are tough, however, to peddle on the secondary market, which I ascribe to an ooh-ick factor that many folks attach to wearing--shudder--used shoes. Indeed, I have read one poster, who said he was a podiatrist, warn on a fashion website that wearing used shoes can cause foot problems serious enough to require amputation, which, due respect, is utter rot, as anyone who has worn used shoes their entire life can attest (as Giuseppe says, I'd say that you're better off wearing good used shoes than new crappy shoes). No matter. My shelves overrun with used shoes, including two pairs of shell cordovan Imperials found within the past two months, one pair for $8, the other for $3.