PALESTINE - In downtown Palestine, a small, family-owned shoe store bears stubborn witness to change.

L&L owners John and Janice Schwab hold firm to tradition, in spite of a changing consumer landscape that pits small shops in direct competition with big box dealers.

These are tough times for independent shoe retailers, but it seems Schwab sticks to his measuring stick, knowing he has something most of the big guys don't: History.

"It started in 1935," he said of the long-standing shoe business launched earlier by entrepreneurs Henry Leon and Joe Lewis.

"They broke the partnership later," but Leon continued on, eventually selling the business in the 1970s to the Schwabs.

Decades later, L&L remains a beloved example of what can happen when things that work well are allowed to stay the same.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Schwab is a degreed educator, drafted during the Vietnam War era when he was still in graduate school.

When it finally came time to separate from the military, the Palestine native started searching for a job.

He and his wife ultimately purchased the old L&L, believing in the theory almost everyone needs at least one pair of sturdy sneakers.

"I didn't know anything about shoes back then, but I learned," Schwab said. "We were young, about 24 or 25."

It wasn't easy, but the couple managed to stay afloat and build a solid reputation for matching customers to shoes, one pair at a time.

"Basically there wasn't any competition," Schwab said. "Back then we didn't have any ‘Foot Lockers.'"

The couple worked side by side for more than 40 years, focusing on custom fits and exceptional customer service, as well as offering a selection geared toward quality and durability.

The keep-it-simple strategy seemed to pay off.

Decades later, Schwab is viewed by many around Palestine and beyond as the go-to guy for a good pair of work boots.

Mrs. Schwab still works around the shop, but most of her working focus these days is earmarked for new adventures in home renovations, he said.

NOD TO THE PAST

L&L is filled with things one might expect in a classic shoe store: foot rulers, fitting stools and the faint aroma of leather in the air.

There's also a touch of the unexpected - an antique X-Ray machine, a throwback to the days when shops used radiation to gauge foot size.

It's not operational, of course, but it's a magnet for the curious.

"I haven't had it long," Schwab said with a grin. "I got a deal."

Store patrons and employees seem to get a charge out of having it around.

"It's pretty neat. … People are very interested in it. He has a lot of unique things in here," said 13-year employee Allison Barfield, pointing out other vintage curiosities - old black and white photos from downtown parades and vintage Converse featuring the Joker and Batman.

The store offers style selections for men, women and children and carries a special inventory of work boots suitable for oil field and construction work.

Some familiar brand names include Dockers, Life Stride, Easy Street, Madeline, Wolverine, Hush Puppy and Polo to name a few.

"And if we don't have it, we can get it," Schwab said.

Once upon a time, before the age of the internet, it seems selecting new shoe styles was an adventure. It called for driving to trade shows in Dallas as opposed to ordering something off the computer.

But change is inevitable, and the big city buying excursions eventually went the way of the earth shoe.

"We're a dying breed," Schwab said of his trade, adding, "Roger's Shoes in Tyler is probably the closest thing you'll come to" as an independent family shoe store.

Rumor has it this popular foot guru plans to retire in a few years and pass the shoehorn to longtime business associate, Marty Nash, a 20-year employee.

"We've known each other forever," Nash said. "I worked here in high school, up until my 20s. When they took over, I was only 16 years old at the time."

Nash said he left after a time for work in the oil field, but drifted back to his old workplace and the satisfaction of helping connect feet to comfort.

"I call this my retirement job," Nash teased. "I'll be here until I retire."

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Reporter

Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.

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