Fixtures of Farmington: Village Shoe Inn perseveres by putting customers (and their feet) first

Businesses come and go, but in downtown Farmington, a handful of merchants have weathered decades of economic and technological shifts, establishing themselves as tried-and-true anchors of this vibrant, small-town community.

 

To celebrate these beloved local institutions, Metromode’s On the Ground Farmington project has been publishing a Fixtures of Farmington series, whereby we shine a spotlight on these businesses’ owners; chronicle each venture’s origin story; and gather insights on how and why these businesses, after so many years, continue to thrive.

 

In the 1970s, Farmington’s Village Shoe Inn was the third of about a half-dozen stores by that name that opened the metro Detroit area, and now it’s one of three that remain. (The other two are in Eastpointe, where its office is also based, and Rochester.) Why does owner Chuck Thibault think the Farmington location is still open for business, after almost 50 years?

 

“It’s centrally located, there are lots of residential, and it’s just a beautiful area,” says Thibault. “And there’s a lot of traffic on Grand River, so we’re seen by people.”

 

When VSI first moved into its building – which had, at one time, been a car dealership – it shared the space with four other small stores. Then, 25 years ago, VSI bought the building outright and expanded to fill the whole space.

 

How did the Thibault family get into shoes?

 

“My mother, for some reason, was fixated on shoes,” says Thibault. “She likes to tell this story about how, when she was growing up in East Detroit, a girl in her class was supposed to hold the button on the drinking fountain for her for a count of ten seconds. She stopped at two, and my mom said, ‘Mary Lou, why’d you stop at two?’ and the girl said, ‘Because you’re wearing your brother’s shoes.’ They weren’t well off, so my mom wore a lot of hand-me-downs.”

 

When Chuck was in high school, his mother, Marianne Thibault, worked at B. Siegel, a Detroit department store, and learned as much as she could while plotting to open a shoe store. “She went to St. Louis and brought back the inventory for her first store in a suitcase,” said Thibault. “ … On the flight back, she was talking to the guy next to her. She explained that she was starting a shoe store, and he started telling her about how many businesses fail. She came home crying, telling my dad, ‘I just spent all of your money!’ … But that guy didn’t know who he was talking to. … My mom is someone who can’t be stopped, no matter what she’s doing. She’s got a ton of drive.”

 

Chuck Thibault tried a few different jobs, “but I always came back to this. In high school, I’d get up and help out at the store. In college, I was there. So at one point, I just never left. I was getting married, and then we had four kids in five years, so then it became a matter of, I better make this work.”

 

Indeed, all four of Thibault’s children work in the family business, as does his wife, making VSI a three-generation family business. “They’re honestly the best salespeople and computer people I’ve ever had,” says Thibault.

 

How has VSI survived the advent of online shopping?

 

“I try to keep costs down by doing things like working 100 hours a week,” said Thibault. “And when a shoe comes in the back door, I Google everything to make sure we’ve got the lowest price in the world – online, everywhere. … And you have to keep getting better at buying. … And people have to enjoy their time in our stores, and they do. … It’s like playing dress up, and the music’s on, and we get to put in our two cents when customers ask for it. It’s almost more of a happening. … We have some customers coming in every two weeks, or every week. I think people are starved of that sense of fun and connection shopping online. There are not that many places left where you can go and feel comfortable and at home.”

 

Thibault sees this firsthand at shoe shows. “There was a time when we knew every third person we passed,” he says. “People who had businesses like ours in another state. Now none of them are there. They’re gone. The only ones buying shoes are big department stores or online people. … Then you’ve got all of us running in different directions in the showroom, … saying, ‘Look at this!’ So we end up with a more varied collection of shoes.”

 

Thibault ultimately believes that VSI’s longevity comes down to hard work and relationships. “If we weren’t doing this from the heart, if this wasn’t genuine, if we were just selling to push things on people, we wouldn’t last,” he says. “ … We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we know we don’t know everything. … We’re willing to talk and think and keep an open mind; and we have a taste level where you can immediately say, ‘I love this,’ or ‘No thanks.’ I’ve been working with customers for 40 years now. It’s just something that gets into your DNA.”