When walking down down the alley between Jimmy Johns and O’Malley’s in Aggieville, there is little expectation to find anything other than a possible shortcut to a parking lot, let alone a shoe store.
Olson’s Shoe Service, to be exact, is what can be found when venturing down this obscure alleyway.
One conversation with Susan Ebberts, an agriculture technician at K-State’s veterinary health center, and it is clear that Olson’s Shoe Service is anything but obscure.
“Everybody knows about Olson’s,” Ebberts said. “I’ve known about it forever.”
Edwin Olson Sr. and his wife of 56 years, Dian Olson, are the fourth generation of the Olson family to run this small and humble business. Their son also works with them.
Since 1889, Olson’s Shoe Service has been serving the Manhattan community. While the Olson’s do, of course, sell shoes such as orthopedics and Birkenstock sandals, they serve customers all sorts of other ways. For example, they’ll repair anything from expensive shoes to leather handbags.
“A lot of ladies wear their dress shoes,” Edwin Sr. said. “They got their five-inch high heels that they bought in Paris when they were on a trip and they paid a lot of money for them. So they want new heels put on them; new soles. They don’t want to throw them away. A lot of cowboys, they got new soles and heels that we got to stitch this on, double stitch, and they pay a lot of money for those cowboy boots.”
Other reasons for repairs or adjustments can range from a pair of shoes getting in the hands, or jaws in this case, of the family dog to life’s many stages taking its toll on the humble waistband.
“There’s always the old guys that are getting fatter and the young guys that are getting skinnier so we have to adjust their belts,” Edwin Sr. said.
Another service the Olson’s provide to Manhattan is in the area of orthopedics, such as making modifications to shoes. They sometimes find that customers need their help more than initially expected.
“It amazes me sometimes,” Dian said. “They’ll come in and they’re having foot issues and the doctor sent them and you’ll look and you’ll say ‘how long have you had those shoes’… ‘well I’ve only had ‘em 10 years.’”
Edwin Sr., who is also a pedorthist, has made it a point to keep himself educated and to make himself an expert in his service, even if it took a moment of truth to realize that he needed to do so.
“We did a lot of orthopedic work,” Edwin Sr. said. “My grandfather taught me and…my father. I thought I knew everything, but when I was 43 years old, I came to the conclusion I didn’t know anything. So I went to a school in Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, and got a piece of paper to hang on the wall down there that says I know stuff now about people with orthopedic problems.”
While Edwin Sr. and Dian have been running their business for a long time, they are only the one generation out of four to have done so. To trace the business back to its roots, one must go all the way back to the mid to late 1800s when Edwin Sr.’s great grandfather came to America from Sweden as an 18 year old seeking land.
Edwin Sr.’s grandfather joined the Civil War and fought for the Union as a cannoneer. He then moved to the territory that is now Kansas and attempted to become a farmer.
After farming didn’t work out, he moved to Manhattan with his family and kids and began his work as the owner of the first Olson’s Shoe Service, which was initially located in what was once the 100 block of Poyntz Ave.
“That’s how we got started in Manhattan,” said Edwin Sr. “A silly guy wanting to leave Sweden and get him some land and come to Kansas.”
After Edwin’s Sr.’s great grandfather passed away at 90 years old, Sam Olson, Edwin Sr.’s grandfather, took over and moved the family business to Aggieville.
While Olson’s Shoe Service currently sits between Jimmy Johns and Sisters of Sound, the building Jimmy Johns is in served at one time as both the Olson’s business property and their home.
In 1984, the Olson’s business moved into its current location.
One significant development Olson’s Shoe Service have made within the past few decades is the sale of Birkenstock sandals. This began with Edwin Sr.’s desire to make some sandals.
“I’d cut a trace around your foot and had my little patterns and this and that,” said Edwin Sr. “In the winter time, I cut all my pieces and stuff and when spring came, I would fit these straps to you so you could have a nice pair of sandals and they cost about $18. Custom made. Everything was leather.”
Later, Edwin Sr. attended a shoe show where he met a German woman selling Birkenstocks.
“I wasn’t convinced, but she thought they were the best,” Edwin Sr. said. “I was pretty sure mine were better. I wore them around the show and this and that and they were better than what I made because they had the cork foot bed and mine were just all leather.”
It took some convincing that Birkenstocks were better than his completely leather sandals, but eventually Edwin Sr. placed his first order of Birkenstocks.
From 1889 to today, Olson’s Shoe Service has made quite a name for itself.
The company receives requests for clothing and accessory repairs from both in-store customers and other customers who ship in their items, sometimes from out of state.
All of this business won’t stop the Olson’s from giving out some wise shoe advice. They said to wear good shoes instead of taking the minimalist approach.
“I don’t think that’s good,” Edwin Sr. said. “Unless you can be a hippie and live in California and walk in the sand all day with no shoes. But spending your life on concrete, you know, I think it will be hard on your knees, your hips, your back. When you get older, there will be a price to pay walking on that concrete, but if you can put a shoe between you and that concrete, that would be good.”
Aside from giving out advice, the Olson’s have also continued to put their best foot forward.
“It’s handy, it’s clean, it’s tidy, the staff is friendly and extremely knowledgeable,” Ebberts said.