Friday, September 23, 2011

dress shoes

My old dress shoes were from Payless, because of course, I wanted to pay less. I actually had two pairs--one that I kept at work, and one that I wore to church. That doesn't say much for multitasking, but it saved me a lot of trouble commuting. I didn't have to wear dress shoes with shorts, or mess them up by traveling in the rain and snow, and I didn't have to carry them back and forth in my already overstuffed bag. It also created a natural rotation so that (if I had shoes where it mattered), they could rest between uses. I managed to keep them going for quite some time, but as luck would have it, they both wore out within a few months of each other.

My first thought was to select a high-quality brand, figure out what size and style I would need, and then watch for a used pair on eBay. I started the process some time ago by visiting a shoe repair shop and asking what to look for in a repairable shoe. That gave me a little bit to go on, but I still felt in over my head. I tracked down some brands that were listed on shoe repair sites and visited a few stores to try them on. I hadn't achieved much clarity, when it occurred to me that I might still have another pair hanging around. These were the shoes that I wore in our wedding 15 years ago. I believe I got them free at church. Sure enough, I had shoved them somewhere in the back of the closet and forgotten about them. They're extremely stiff and not very comfortable, but I figured I could get by with them for a while.

A few months later, while shopping for boots, it occurred to me that work shoes might be a better way to go. I rarely need to dress up all that much, so they would probably meet my needs. They would be designed for comfort and probably have wider, less constricting toes. Good ones should be repairable, like any good work boot. So I started looking for brands of work shoes. I knew Red Wing, of course, and I discovered some John Deere oxfords. I also discovered Doc Martens, which appeared to have an industrial line.

I couldn't find a promising local vendor for the John Deere shoes or for Doc Martens. Sure, plenty of stores sell Doc Martens, but to get the industrial line, you have to go somewhere that specializes in safety shoes. I didn't want steel toe or anything like that, and the selections weren't good enough to find anything else. They ran more expensive than the John Deere, so if it came to ordering a shoe online, I figured there wasn't much point.

I thought Red Wings would be my best bet, since I knew there were local dealers. But there was really only one style that I was interested in, and the local store didn't carry it in stock. They said I'd have to pay in advance to order, so I wasn't much better off than with the other brands--plus, they were the most expensive option.

I finally decided to try ordering the John Deere shoes, but I discovered that they were discontinued. I also discovered that a lot of online stores will list sizes based on what they think they can get from the manufacturer. So although it appeared that I could get them for around $70, I was all the way up to $100 by the time I found someone who could get me a pair in my freakishly small size. (I don't know why they could get them when others couldn't, but who am I to complain?) And even at that, they weren't sure there would actually be any available.

After I ordered, I started wondering what I would do if I couldn't get the John Deere shoes. I had pretty much assumed that I couldn't get anything American made, but by this point I'd started to think a little more about that issue. Sure, locally made was my first choice, and American made was the next best thing. But if I couldn't get that, was everything else all the same? I would say now, not really. You see, there are at least two kinds of imports. There's the stuff, like Persian rugs, that we import because it originated in some part of the world where the quality is simply unparalleled. That's just where you have to go to get the real thing. Then there's the stuff that we import because it's cheaper to make it somewhere else and ship it halfway around the world. I would say the first kind is morally superior, because it's not about eliminating jobs here and exploiting lower standards over there, just to save a few bucks.

So even though Doc Martens are a British brand, that doesn't necessarily put them on a par with Dan Post boots (the manufacturer of the John Deere brand) made in China. As it turns out, most Doc Martens are also made in Asia, but not all. Some of their vintage styles are still made in the UK, and although this does not include their industrial line, they are still supposed to be roomy, comfortable, repairable shoes. Of course, they're also more expensive than other Doc Martens, but that's to be expected. I found an online coupon and ordered a pair to replace my shoes at work, which had just developed a split in the sole.

The John Deeres arrived, and the sizing was pretty accurate. If anything, they were a touch loose--but I can live with that. I was mostly concerned that they might end up being too small, so I couldn't wear them. They're oiled leather and look very much like work boots--more than I was expecting once you're wearing them with pants so you can't see how high they go. But I think they'll do the job, and the nice thing is, the care should be the same as for whatever boots I finally buy. I kind of wish I'd thought more about the whole "made in China" thing sooner, but aside from that, I'm happy with the purchase.

The Doc Martens took quite a bit longer to arrive, but they also turned out to be the right size. They're not pointy like a lot of dress shoes, but they're also not quite as roomy as I was hoping. I think that and the stiff leather account for any discomfort I felt up front. I doubt they'll ever be my most comfortable shoes, but as dress shoes go, they should break in OK. I think I'll keep them at home for a while and try to figure out which pair makes more sense to have at work. The Doc Martens look nicer and would probably work with a wider range of casual-to-dress clothes. But if they're the less comfortable of the two, I might better save them for less sustained use, like church and special occasions.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

obsessing about leather

Of course, if I'm going to invest in shoes and boots that I hope will last for years to come, I also need to make sure I take proper care of them. There's no point resoling worn-out uppers. Coincidentally, we also recently bought a used leather couch. (That one was Julie's idea, but I like it.) In the process of moving it, I managed to scuff some corners, so we'd been trying to figure out what we could do about that. It all worked out nicely, because it turned out the solutions were quite similar.

I spent quite a bit of time looking online for information about leather care. One thing I began to discover was that experts tend not to advise what's popular. Products like mink oil and Sno Seal are downplayed in favor of regular conditioning. The general idea seems to be that leather is skin, and its main problem is that it's no longer wrapped around a living animal. Since it lacks a natural source of moisturizing agents, it needs regular treatment to keep it flexible, breathable, and waterproof. Greasy or waxy products that clog the pores will diminish breathability and will generally not soak into the leather well enough to keep it flexible. Instead they advise conditioners made mostly of beeswax or lanolin.

Of course, one of the problems with looking online for this kind of information is knowing how far to trust the sources. Mostly you find Web sites for leather care products, where they tell you why other stuff doesn't work right. Obviously. But I did find one or two sites run by leather repair shops that said the same thing. I also got an important recommendation in passing from a biker apparel shop. When I was looking for local boot dealers, I came across In Step Leather, which specializes in motorcycle apparel but sells a wide range of boots. Unfortunately, they didn't have the specific brands and styles that I settled on, but they were very helpful throughout the process. Since they do a lot with leather, I asked about our couch, and they recommended Outback Leather on Main Street in Laurel.

Outback does all kinds of leather repair and sells some leather care products. They specialize in equestrian, which I guess is a good idea, so close to the Laurel Race Track. The shop has loads of character, and the proprietor was very helpful. He confirmed what I'd read online about leather conditioning and recommended a brand called Bickmore. Regarding the couch, he suggested conditioning the whole thing, while emphasizing the scuffed areas. After a few applications, there was significant improvement. You can still see the marks if you look for them, but some are almost completely invisible, while the worst are just slightly discolored.

Because regular conditioning is supposed to waterproof leather, I've also become a bit obsessive about applying the stuff to my shoes. I figure I'll do this for a while, since I don't know how long they sat around before shipping, or how well the leather was oiled in the first place. Later, I'll settle into a more regular routine. So far, my obsession has paid off. I don't know if I ever would have found the solution for the couch if I hadn't been thinking so much about boots. It will take longer to determine how much it helps to extend the life of my shoes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

overthinking footwear

I'm afraid I've developed something of a shoe fetish. Don't get me wrong--I won't be the next Imelda Marcos or anything; my closet should fit me for years to come. But just as the Fathers warn that there are two types of gluttony--the kind where you eat everything in sight, and the kind where you eat only the best food money can buy--I'm pretty sure there are at least two types of obsession when it comes to shoes.

For quite some time, I've been thinking (more than doing anything) about buying more responsibly. I've tried to be realistic about it, which I guess is part of the reason that not much has happened. You see, my financial decisions affect more people than me, and while I would be willing to make a certain level of sacrifice to placate my own sense of moral responsibility, in general I've tried to avoid forcing that on others. So, once you subtract out the big-ticket items that affect the whole household and the routine purchases that Julie typically handles, there's really not much left. In fact, my primary means of buying responsibly is not to buy at all, or to muddle along with something until it's completely worthless. An example here would be my infamous first pair of Crocs, which I'm still wearing years later, even though they have rather large holes in the bottom.

A somewhat less well-known example is my trusty pair of boots. My real snow boots, which I'd had since I think 5th or 6th grade, wore out sometime after we moved to Maryland. Since Maryland winters never get very severe, I decided not to replace them and fell back on my hiking boots, which I'd got free from my father-in-law. They're probably around 15 years old now, and the past couple of winters I've had to hit them with Super Glue to keep them from falling apart. I realized last winter that this couldn't go on forever, so I started planning to buy new boots.

Now, at this point I should probably explain what I mean by "buying responsibly." (There's hardly an accepted definition.) The path of least resistance is to buy in accordance with the marketing we're subjected to every day. Being a world-class cheapskate and someone who doesn't exactly like to shop around, for me this would normally mean buying from Walmart or a similar discount department store. After all, who doesn't like everyday low prices? But when you stop and think about it, this is a very superficial way to do business.

Somewhere back in the dawn of time, someone needed food or clothing or shelter, and did what he could to find it or make it. Before too long, he figured out that, although he wasn't good at everything, he could trade for things that others did better. This created an opportunity to specialize and get even more skilled, and everyone benefited from the system. Money was introduced, because it's easier to carry than, say, a sheep; and merchants arose, whose business was getting stuff from remote places. But generally speaking, you were still not far removed from the actual producer. Values of things made sense and depended on factors like how much labor went into production, how far you had to go to get them, and how scarce the raw materials were. You pretty much knew what you were getting, where it came from, and whether it was a fair price. In those days, the effect that your purchases had on people in your own community was pretty obvious.

Today, the system is much more complex, and part of the outcome is that I can easily conduct a transaction without even thinking about the people involved. I'll never know anything about the Third-World sweatshop worker who assembled my sneakers. The guy in the store who helps me buy them doesn't know her either. He also doesn't know much of anything about the product and barely knows how to run a cash register. I'm pretty sure some kind of machine could do his job better, and if I buy my sneakers online, I assume it did. I'm not thinking about the small shop owner who can't make enough money to stay in business, or the laid-off factory worker who can't find a job for his skill set, or the absurd amount of fuel that it takes to move my cheap goods halfway around the world, or the living standard of the person who does make them. I'm just thinking about what I want and how cheap I can get it.

So, if I'm going to buy responsibly, I need to turn off the marketing, stop buying reflexively, and consider the most important priorities. For me, there are at least three:
  • Products made and sold as locally as possible. Some products can realistically be found in the local community; for other things, like shoes, this often means buying American. It's hard enough to find shoes manufactured in the USA, without worrying about whether they were made in the Pacific Northwest or the Deep South. I would love to buy a shoe made here in Maryland, but if I can't do that, I'd at least like to know that most of my money is helping to support American industry.
  • Products made to last. This means at least two things. They should be made well, so that they don't wear out quickly; and they should be constructed according to renewable methods, so that they can be easily repaired. Most shoes these days are made with glue-on soles. Repair shops have figured out ways to work with them--mostly by cutting off the soles and re-building them according to more traditional methods--but it seems more sensible to buy shoes made properly in the first place, if the intention is to use them as long as possible. I'd rather not chuck shoes in a landfill when they still have life in them. So repairability is big for me.
  • Products that can multitask. I don't want to have to buy a separate pair of shoes for every activity. So for instance, if I'm buying boots, I want them to work for walking, hiking, shoveling snow, and riding a bike in winter.
Following these priorities is not easy. It's not the kind of information that manufacturers or retailers want you to think about. So I've found myself spending a lot of time thinking about shoes. I tell myself that it's just for now--that once I've bought the shoes I hope to buy, I can go years and years without thinking about them again. But right now, it really does feel like an obsession. Case in point, this is already a long post, and I haven't got to the details of my purchases yet. There is more to come . . . .