Full Circle: The sole of Main St. – Hastings holds a century-old Austin legacy

Published 9:53 am Friday, September 18, 2015

Skip and Jean Hastings pose outside Hastings Shoe Store. Photo provided by the Hastings family

Skip and Jean Hastings pose outside Hastings Shoe Store. Photo provided by the Hastings family

In the past 106 years, neither Austin churches, nor traveling ministries nor tent revivals have saved more soles than has one modest unassuming establishment on our very own Main Street. It has, as well, rid our town of some of its worst heels. I speak of Hastings Shoes, a place where you can still get your tired, worn out soles reawakened and leave with a new spring in your step. You don’t need counseling. You need our town cobbler, Jean Hastings!

In 1909, Grandfather Ray made leather harnesses for the horse drawn Hormel delivery carts. Over the years the business morphed into shoe repair and accessories under son Skip’s guidance. For instance, shoelaces. Who doesn’t remember when every home had a shoelace box, a container where an orphaned lace patiently awaited another orphaned lace with the hope of mating into a new pair.

Laces then were made of cotton, thus frequently broke. It was normal to see children’s shoes with numerous knots — ratty, frayed things that made it impossible to thread the gnarly clumps through the grommets. The more children in the family, the more knotted shoelaces for then shoes had long lives, being handed down, down, and down from the first to last child until even an expert like Skip Hastings threw up his hands in despair over fixing them.

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Laces were meant to keep shoes on, but they had other uses as diverse as threading them through the waistband of old sweat pants or tethering around a girl’s neck the class ring of the first boy with whom she fell crazy mad in love. Lifeguards tied their whistles on them and mothers used shoelaces to hold together anything that required holding together.

Skip would tell you of the day the use of one went beyond all expectations when a woman the size of a small mountain came into the shop. She wanted to buy a shoelace. Only one. The longest one Skip had.

Perplexed, he politely inquired how she planned to use it. Expecting her to pull a long boot from her satchel, his jaw dropped to the floor when the round bellied woman proceeded to pull her skirt up to her chest.

“Here!” she exclaimed, “right here!” pointing to the crest of her stomach. “The string in my corset broke and I need to replace it!” One needed only to look at the strain the overtaxed string was under to comprehend the failure.

Skip stared in stunned disbelief. There before his unblinking eyes was an industrial sized woman wearing an industrial strength piece of tautly stretched rubber around what was formerly a waist. But rather than the corset holding her firmly in place, the broken string now allowed much of her to unbecomingly spill out.

Nonetheless, Skip’s reputation was to please and this woman was no exception. Ruffling through his own box of orphaned shoelaces he found the longest — and strongest — and handed it over. There is no record of who laced it into the corset, but the woman left with a smile on her face and a contained midriff.

People didn’t know Skip was color blind. This was not a problem until one of the strippers from a local bar came in with a pair of skanky, red, knee-high boots. (Her sole clearly needed work!)

Skip repaired the boots, and as a bonus, polished them. Two days later the strumpet returned. Handing them to her, Skip was unprepared for the outburst that exploded from her fleshy crimson lips. “For crying out loud, what happened to my red boots?” she screamed, her mascared eyes bulging from under her heavily powdered forehead. “They’re black!”

That’s when Skip’s color blindness hit the fan, if you catch my drift. After days of intensive effort, wife Jean restored them to their former fire-engine-red. Peace was restored. Skip never did understand what the commotion was about. They looked the same to him.

Who polishes shoes anymore? Ask a child of today what Shinola is and he’ll tell you it’s a teeth bleaching formula. But, do you remember when gentlemen climbed onto the Fox Hotel’s shoe shine pedestal? For fifty-cents their shoes were shined until they reflected their faces. Hastings had such a pedestal, too. There customers sat on a marble base and rested their feet upon a genuine brass rail. Each man felt like Rudolph Valentino, his shoes glinting in the sun, making him the man.

I’ll bet you a Tendermaid hamburger any boy who went to AHS back the ‘50s cobbled up a shoe box in shop class. Of course he did! Every house boasted one of these sturdy handmade wonders filled with an assortment of polishes, a shoe brush and rags to wipe the polish off your hands. Even now, decades, later, the boxes are still with us. But, just wait. One day in the future alien archeologists will excavate them and be baffled over what their purpose was.

My family shopped exclusively at Smith’s Shoes. Throughout grade school, I was required to wear sensible brown leather metatarsal arch supports, the purpose being to mold my arches into the same convexity as a curved Oriental bridge. At least that’s what Mom foretold.

When trying the new shoes on, the first thing I did was race to the x-ray machine to see how they fit. Placing both feet into the twin holes of what looked like a giant square bee hive, I could see all my foot bones. If two of them touched, the shoes were instantly rejected, for the purpose of being irradiated was to ensure my growing feet could expand as nature intended them to. Intended, that is, until man got his way and jammed them into shoes!

Often we kids would peek through Smiths’ window to see if a clerk was there. If not, we’d dash inside to the x-ray machine and view the wonder of our lower skeletons. We squealed at their creepiness not really believing we were seeing the real us. What surely saved us from radiation poisoning was the return of the clerk who hustled us on our way. It was a time of such innocence.

The first thing I did with my new metatarsal arch supports was make a hasty trip to Hastings. There Skip nailed on a fifteen-cent pair of metal toe and heel clips while holding a line-up of dinky nails between his tightly pursed lips. I feared he would breathe in suddenly and swallow them, but practiced as he was, he never did.

I loved my shoe clips. They were the closest I came to being Ginger Rogers, the quintessential tap dancer of our time. Anyone could have told me my taps were nothing like Ginger’s, but hearing myself click across Mom’s polished kitchen floor, I was assured stardom was just around the corner.

My most vivid memory of spring in Minnesota was the day I could once again — after long months of winter — hear my metal clips clacking on the cement sidewalk, the ice having finally melted to the pavement. Then I knew summer was on its way and I could again return to practicing my Ginger Rogers routine on the dry, snowless driveway. Honestly, that first clack on the sidewalk is a real memory! Do you remember that or is it just me?

Jean Hastings recently informed me that metal shoe clips are now called “hush” clips. Seems the embarrassment of hearing how wise and practical we are by guaranteeing our shoes will last years longer is too uncool for today’s “in” crowd. My treasured “clack” has been reduced to a fashion stigma. Sheesh!

We always walked to school and back — the proverbial two miles up hill and one mile down in both good and dastardly weather. This required protection for our shoes. Enter overshoes. These sturdy rubber boots were worn over our shoes, the boys having strong buckle clips as did the girls until we got old enough to have classy zippers. The girls’ were decorated with fur from unidentifiable creatures, making us the cat’s meow … or some part of it.

Hastings also dyed shoes. Do you recall dying our white satin pumps for the prom and later for our weddings, Skip matching them to our crinoline dresses? Who said Austin was behind the times when we had Skip … just as long as someone oversaw his undiscerning-color eyes.

Imagine being in the same business for 106 years! Remarkable! Isn’t it time we all marched our sorry soles right down to Hastings? And while we’re at it, bring along those no-good, back-sliding heels. It’s time for a rebirth.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” which outlines her experiences living in Japan in the 1960s while her husband was in the military. Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing pggyknr@yahoo.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”