After more than four decades of selling Birkenstock sandals, Frye boots and a wide selection of other European footwear, one of the city's most beloved shoe stores is closing.
Cornblooms, founded in the late 1960s on University Avenue and now at Hilldale Shopping Center, will close by the end of the year.
Jeanette Riechers, who along with her now late husband, Larry Riechers, purchased the store in 1999, said the business wasn't meeting expectations but no one reason led to the lack of sales.
"I'm not blaming the mall or the internet or construction. Like anything else, it was a cascade," Riechers said while seated in the store's storage room. "It's a business and sadly we didn't make our numbers. It has to perform at a certain level in order to move forward, and the numbers told me that it was time."
The announcement of the store's closing comes just over a year after Riechers closed Madison Sole, a shoe store at 414 State St., that she and her husband opened in 2002.
The elegantly decorated Hilldale store moved to its current location from a spot on the mall's southern end two years ago after WS Development completed a $15 million renovation designed to create a more open-air shopping experience with entrances on the outside. The Riecherses moved into their new 3,500-square-foot store, 60 percent of which is backroom shoe storage space, in July of 2015. Two months later Larry Riechers died unexpectedly at the age 64 of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Larry Riechers, who owned Professional Dairy Services, a Waunakee dairy equipment company, wasn't involved with the day-to-day business operations but was a key adviser to Jeanette and their longtime general manager, Brenda Baril, who started working at the store 30 years ago.
Larry's death "changed things. He was a partner in our business," Jeanette Riechers said. "I would have loved to talk to Larry about this. We would have long meetings over coffee just looking at numbers and working this and that out. The three of us really charted the path."
Cornblooms was founded in 1968 or 1969 after Arnie and Sharon Ruben purchased a head shop at 615 University Avenue. They quickly changed the name and in 1970 moved the store to 505 State St. Over the years, the Rubens would go on to open other retail stores in Madison including Boot Barn and three Cobbie Shop locations before moving Cornbloom's to Hilldale in 1984, when the mall was enclosed. The Boot Barn and Cobbie Shop stores closed years ago.
"It's very sad in many ways," Arnie Ruben, 75, said from his home in Fort Myers, Florida, where he lives with Sharon, 74. "It's a shame because mom-and-pops are going to the wayside in these malls. I don't know if we could run things today the way we did back then."
The current Cornblooms store is actually the third location at Hilldale, with both of the previous stores on the southern end of the mall. The Oct. 3 announcement on the store's Facebook page of the closing of Cornblooms struck a chord with customers who posted well wishes and sorrowful comments.
"Cornblooms!! We love you," Becky Sewell of Madison wrote. "I used to work for Cornblooms in high school, 100 years ago. So sad."
"Where will I send my customers and friends to buy amazing shoes?" wrote Halley Jones, founder of the Purple Goose, a Verona clothing store. "U guys are the best! You will be missed."
The store, with 12 employees, four of whom are full-time, is known for not only its Birkenstocks but for other brands like Camper, Pikolinos, Wolky, Ruby Shoo and Dansko. It also sells colorful rubber boots from Hunter along with hand bags, scarves and jewelry. In the late 1980s the store had a slogan of "Shoes for your head," meaning smart shoes that were more about ergonomics than fashion. Riechers said the store also had a jingle written years ago by Madison jazz musician Ben Sidran that was pat of radio and television commercials for the business.
"Everybody whose ever worked here loved shoes," said Baril, 55. "Everybody has a passion for shoes and I think it showed. If it turned out they didn't like shoes they didn't last long. We've always hired people who love the customer."
Riechers, a Boscobel native, admits that there are fewer local businesses at Hilldale and that improvements to the shopping center have resulted in higher rents. However, she still has confidence in the shopping center that still holds several local retailers like Morgan's Shoes, Twigs, Home Market, the toy store Playthings and Metcalfe's Market; virtually all of the restaurants are locally owned as well.
"For us it didn't work and that's not a pejorative to Hilldale," Riechers said. "It's beautiful, and stores are still opening at Hilldale. I think they have a vision and they're seeing it through. There's always someone in competition with you. You just have to do what you do and do it well."