FREMONT — For 97 years, Fremont’s Main Street has always had a Buck’s Shoe Store.
The Fremont store, part of a chain of shoe retailers started in Omaha in the early 1900s, was founded by Earl Buck in 1922. By the 1930s, the company had more than 30 stores across the Midwest. Now there are only two stores left.
And come May, those two stores will close their doors.
Kirk Brown and his wife Mollie own the remaining two Buck’s Shoe Stores — the Fremont location and one near Oak View Mall in Omaha. But a few months ago, the Browns made the decision to close the stores, citing well-reported challenges to brick-and-mortar retailers, particularly because of the rise of online shopping.
“Retail is just dramatically changing,” Kirk Brown said. “People are buying on the internet, and it’s just becoming harder and harder for brick-and-mortar retail stores to stay in business.”
The store is holding a clearance sale, and its building in Fremont is for sale, Brown said.
The decision to close the store is a painful one for Brown, whose family’s history is deeply intertwined with the history of Buck’s Shoes.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’ve been selling shoes since I was 12, so it’s been my whole life. The history of the store and of the family and stuff, it’s been hard.”
His father, F. Douglas Brown, started working at the store in Hastings, ultimately shifting to work in Omaha just after World War II, Brown says.
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About that time, Buck was nearing retirement and began selling his stores to managers and employees. The elder Brown purchased the Fremont location in 1964.
In 1986, Kirk Brown purchased the store from his father. And in 1994, he moved the store to its current location on the corner of Sixth and Main streets.
Until 2016, the Fremont location was the last surviving Buck’s Shoes. That year, the Browns decided to open a second store in Omaha.
But with increasing challenges to the retail sector, Kirk Brown says the stores were having a difficult time competing. Many of the store’s vendors had their own online retail operations, he added.
Brown says he believes that Buck’s offered a personal touch that’s hard to find when shopping online.
“We always personally fit our customers, and one thing that we were able to do that people are never going to be able to do off the internet, we could customize shoes if we needed to,” he said. “If a shoe was a little tight, we could stretch it. If a shoe was a little big, we had ways to adjust it to fit the foot better. We were able to recommend things knowing the customer’s foot, knowing our products of what would work best for them.”
Brown says he’s still looking to see what his next steps are. He’d be interested in doing something in development or with a nonprofit, and he said he hopes that people begin to return to the personal approach of brick-and-mortar retail.
“I always wanted to think that that was going to happen," he said. "I think at some point maybe people are going to realize that, but it may be too late at that point.”