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McClatchy-Tribune  08/29/2014 8:13 PM ET
Smith's Shoes expands back to its old courthouse square neighborhood [Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. :: ]

Aug. 29--While waiting for service, customers today might pull up a social media or gaming app on their smartphone to keep their hands busy.

But 62 years ago, it was commonplace for store patrons at Smith's Shoes to puff on a cigarette while browsing and buying.

Steve Smith remembers one of his first jobs was emptying ashtrays for customers at Smith's Shoes, which was then owned by his grandfather. Now, the owner of Smith's Shoe Center on South Walnut Street, Smith can't imagine someone entering his store with a lit cigarette in hand.

"It gives me nightmares to think about the cigarette smoke getting in the leather," Smith said. "Instead of pulling out a pair of Frye boots and having that gorgeous leather smell, it would smell like smoke."

The original Smith's Shoes could be found on the east side of the downtown square. Three generations of owners, two major moves, and a few name changes later, Smith's Shoes Center has opened a second location, Smith's Shoes on West Kirkwood Avenue across from the courthouse.

"When I first started to think about how we started downtown, I thought it was neat that we were on Walnut," Smith said. "And then, when we bought the shopping center, we edged a little bit closer and were back on Walnut. And now that perfect little opportunity lined up, and here we are, how many years later, and we're back on the square where we started."

Steve Smith's grandfather, Phillip Smith, spent most of his professional life in the footwear industry. He opened Smith's Shoes in 1952 where Malibu Grill is now located.

"In that day, there were a lot of shoe stores on the square. That was the place of commerce," Smith said. "There weren't malls; you were downtown."

A recent Smith's Shoe Center customer brought Smith a piece of history from his grandfather's era: a canceled check from 1959.

"The funny part about that is I think the check was for like $2.70 for a pair of shoes," Smith said.

Steve Smith's father, Sid, took over the business and managed Smith's Shoes' first expansion, this one in College Mall. Built in 1965, it was one of the first enclosed mall properties developed by Melvin Simon & Associates, which became publicly traded company Simon Property Group in 1993. Smith's Shoes was one of College Mall's first tenants.

Sid Smith ran the downtown store and College Mall Smith's Shoes until 1967, when the former closed.

"On certain days, when we were allowed as little kids, we would go in there and work and help, which probably meant we were getting in the way," Steve Smith said.

One of Steve Smith's jobs at the store was taking care of Joe the myna bird, a black bird with yellow markings on his neck that perched in the children's section of the mall store.

"Joe the myna bird would send kids a birthday card with a balloon in it," Smith said. "I've had some people where they saved these birthday cards from Joe the myna bird and brought them back in."

While Steve Smith worked at Smith's Shoes in his youth, he never thought he would follow in his father's footsteps and one day own the store.

"Of course, growing up here, I couldn't wait to get away, and being away I couldn't wait to get back," he said.

Smith left Bloomington in 1980 and moved to Texas. But even states away from home, he found himself in familiar territory. He got a job at Foot Locker and worked his way through management, moving to Houston and Bryan-College Station in Texas, and Lafayette and New Orleans in Louisiana.

"My thought was I would just go there and take a little bit of time to figure out my path, and I went to the one thing that I knew, which was shoes," Smith said.

By 1990, Smith was training to become a district manager with Foot Locker when his father called to tell him that he was thinking of selling or closing the family business.

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