JEFFERSON — There aren’t many places left like Waldmann Shoe Store.
Located in a worn historic building on South Main Street, this is where for decades blue-collar workers at Nestle, Stoppenbach’s, Tyson and Laddish Malt have come to protect their toes with a pair of Red Wings.
The store’s lineup has included sneakers, high heels, loafers, Minnetonka Moccasins and cowboy boots from Laredo and Dingo. Keeping feet dry has also been part of the store’s mission with galoshes that go over dress shoes, those black rubber boots with the metal clasps and utilitarian waders that come up just below the knee and are fancied by cheesemakers, farmers and gardeners.
Lee blue jeans, leather belts, shoe strings of varying lengths and colors, insoles, Hanes underwear and shoe polish all have been part of the business model. And in this city of Gemuetlichkeit, Waldmann has been the only place to buy lederhosen, dirndl and children’s clothing for the annual German festival held here each September since 1971.
But the shoe store’s greatest asset is Judy Waldmann, its septuagenarian entrepreneur who, after four decades behind the counter is closing her beloved business, selling the building and retiring to travel and spend more time with her four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“Not too many people get to do what they like to do for 40 years,” Waldmann said between customers last week. “When I came here I had children in high school and now I’m retiring as a great-grandma.”
There will still be notable businesses remaining in the downtown like The Drug Store, founded in 1899; Bon Ton Bakery, that this year is celebrating its 100th year; Wedl’s Hamburger Stand, founded in 1919, and the jewelry store that has been on South Main Street for 60 years and owned since 1996 by Dave Knutson.
“Judy’s a good soul,” said Knutson. “She’s always willing to help in the community. She’s just a very positive person to be around.”
The final day of business will be Saturday, but since she started a going-out of business sale at the end of June, long-time customers and friends have been pouring into the store in search of a few bargains and to say farewell to Waldmann, 77, who lost her husband to cancer in 2012. Over the last few years, Waldmann has scaled back the hours of the store to where it was “usually open” Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and “some Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon,” according to a sign on the front door.
“You’re going to enjoy the retirement force,” Marvin Moldenhauer, 80, of Jefferson, told Waldmann as he entered the store last week to try on a pair of Red Wing boots. “I’ve never regretted it.”
Later, while standing in the back of the store, trying on a pair of boots, Moldenhauer reminisced about Ruben Buss, the cigar-chomping owner of Buss’ Shoe Store that closed years ago in the city’s downtown, and the soon-to-be loss of Waldmann Shoe Store.
“It’s always sad to see something like this close because it’s been here a long time,” Moldenhauer said. “Judy’s very personal.”
Independent shoe stores like Waldmann can be tough to find, especially in smaller communities. The Shoe Box in Black Earth is perhaps the busiest shoe store in the state, while Brown’s Shoe Fit Company, for years known as Ray’s Shoes, has been a staple in downtown Watertown for over 60 years. In Whitewater, Dale’s Bootery has been an anchor of that city’s downtown since 1969.
About 20 percent of the $74 billion a year in U.S. footwear sales come from independent shoe stores, according to the National Shoe Retailers Association, a non-profit organization that represents about 8,000 independent footwear retailers. The vast majority of shoes, however, are purchased at national retailers like Walmart, Shopko, Kohl’s, Target and Payless Shoesource, a company with more than 4,400 locations which entered bankruptcy in April with $838 million in debt.
Waldmann Shoe Store survived the downsizing over the years of the retail sector in Jefferson’s downtown, the 2010 opening of the Highway 26 bypass that diverted traffic away from the city’s core, the contentious arrival in 2008 of a Walmart Supercenter and the onslaught of on-line shopping that continues to grow.
“I wasn’t planning on retiring,” Waldmann said. “I’m only 77, I’ve got a lot of good years left in me.”
Waldmann grew up just a few blocks from the store and after graduating from Jefferson High School in 1958 enrolled in a Madison cosmetology school and lived on Langdon Street. After finishing school, her hairdressing career lasted all of 13 months after she became unhappy with the work. She returned to work at the Kroger grocery store where she had worked during high school and in 1960 married Elmer Waldmann.
Judy spent 17 years as a stay-at-home mom raising two children and for years showed prized Himalayan cats. But in 1977, she took the plunge back into retail and became her own boss when she purchased from Alice Messmer a shoe store that was founded by Ethel Nedow in 1951.
“We’d take the shipping boxes and build forts and try on all the shoes,” said Tammy Schillinger, 56, of Cambridge, a granddaughter of Messmer who perused Waldmann Shoe Store last week. “My mom worked with her (mother) for several years. Grandma was her own business lady.”
And the building will continue to be owned by a woman, as Julia Chady has purchased the building for her Indeco Interior Design Co. Chady approached Waldmann in December. Waldmann was caught off guard by the offer but ultimately agreed to sell. She’s looking forward to retirement but is glad she is going to grief support after her sister, Bunny Wenzel, died in May at 81. Not going to the store every day will also take some adjustment, Waldmann said.
“I think if you have a problem and you recognize that it’s a problem that’s half the battle,” Waldmann said. “I could have a problem when the dust settles so I’m actively doing something about it.”
Waldmann also has the support of royalty. Each Friday morning, she meets for coffee at Brickhaus Cafe with four other Gemuetlichkeit queens. Waldmann was crowned in 1986, Jean Hartwig in 1988, Waldmann’s daughter, Wendy Rueth, in 1995, Kelly Becker in 2003 and JoAnn Meinel in 2005.
German clothing that had been sold in the shoe store on consignment has been moved to the home of Janet Werner, Gemuetlichkeit treasurer, and can be viewed by appointment by calling 920-650-4116. A chair, fitting stool and wooden Ritz measuring stick from Waldmann Shoe Store have all been donated to the Jefferson Historical Society.
Awards for first-place finishes in the Fort Fest parade, a 2016 plaque heralding Waldmann Shoe Store as the business of the year in 2016 from the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and a 2007 plaque from the Wisconsin Women’s Council announcing Waldmann as one of the recipients of the Governor’s Trailblazer Awards for Women in Business are all going to Waldmann’s home along the Crawfish River.
“What I’ve been telling everybody, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, is that it’s like going to your own funeral visitation,” Waldmann said. “I get hugs and well-wishes. Most people don’t get to go through what I’m going through.”