What would you say if you were offered the chance to travel by time machine to Indianapolis in the 1890’s? Would you do it? If so, where would you go? Who would you see? Where would you stay, eat and shop?
Consider the places you frequent today. How might they have looked back then? If you read this website much, you may already know. If you don’t, you’re in luck. Herein, we’re yet again excavating Indianapolis history by way if its oft-overlooked and sometimes taken-for-granted places.
Let’s say you were headed to the past and wanting to shop: the only retail establishment you would find occupying the same building, carrying the same name, purveying the same goods and being run by the same family would be Stout’s Shoes. Located in the 300 block of Massachusetts Avenue – its address for more than a century – Stout’s Shoes is a gem among Indianapolis’ cultural and architectural monuments. The family, too, is one-of-a-kind, in its fifth generation of providing for the needs of Indianapolis feet.
Had you popped into Stout’s in 1895, you would have been greeted by the first Harry Stout who founded the Mass Ave shop in 1886. “Good morning sir” or “Good morning Madam” he might have said whilst ushering you to the appropriate department. The salesman in said department would then introduce himself and set about measuring your feet while determining your needs. This salesman would then dote on and spoil you with his undivided attention and exceptional knowledge.
Not much has changed at Stout’s since then. The departments have been integrated but the personal attention provided by the affable owners and staff is a tradition that lives on. According to former long-time employee, Betty Heavin, that quality time and attention is the secret to Stouts’ longevity.
It’s hard to imagine, but at one time there were more than 20 people working the Stout’s store on a single shift. There were 15 sales people, a shoe repairer, 2 wrappers, a cashier, and a custodian, all bustling with activity and eager to please every shopper. The tight quarters united all present, whether shopper, staff, or Stout, and created a family atmosphere where all felt welcome.
“[The Stouts] are such generous people…they make you want to do well for them,” Heavin noted.
The Stout’s inclusive nature and ability to inspire are qualities that have been passed down through the generations. According to the founder’s grandson, the second Harry Stout, who ran the store for 40 years, the store’s success hinges on “good management” and determination – or in his words “bullheadedness.”
The aforementioned qualities, not to mention a little luck – the Indy 500 parade passed within a block of the Stout storefront in the years when downtown was not so thriving, driving customers and boosting sales – have helped build Stout’s success. A number of small but clever innovations have also contributed to the company’s longevity. Among these was the introduction of the Baldwin Flyer. Implemented in the early 1900’s, this assembly of cables, pulleys and metal baskets sent shoes and payments whizzing overhead between the floor and mezzanine levels of the store, inspiring ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ among children and adults alike. The Baldwin Flyer still functions at Stout’s Shoes and is a must-see for anyone interested in Indianapolis lore.
Mid 20th century, Stout’s introduced an exotic animal element. There were a pair of monkeys and and a parrot named Billy who was wildly popular with Stout’s younger clients. Today, their parrot Ripley’s bright colors, squawks and well-timed punchlines captivate adults as often as children.
As for service, the staff at Stout’s consists of ‘shoe stewards’ more than shoe salesmen. Unlike department stores, wherein simply finding a sales clerk to bring you a pair of shoes can feel like an exercise in futility, the shoe stewards at Stout’s gladly escort you through each step of the shoe shopping experience.
As a result of this careful attention to service, the salespeople at Stout’s know their customers well and retain a client list that includes shoe size, style preferences, wish lists and special requests. Betty says she knew her clientele so well that when a certain style of shoe came in, she knew exactly who to call. Imagine a salesperson that knows your proclivities so well you need only wait for a phone call when the next season’s shoes arrive.
Another factor in Stout’s success – in addition, of course, to its focus on family – is the company’s ability to adapt to modern consumer culture without losing its charm. At one time there were five Stout’s stores throughout downtown. Stout’s Shoes in Carmel opened in 1985 and the family also runs a successful online store, ShoeStores.com. The family ethos is so strong, in fact, that when you purchase a pair of shoes from the website, chances are good that Brady Stout, a fifth generation shoe man, is boxing up the order for shipment. Brad Stout is now head of the company, and his wife, Stephanie Stout, manages the beloved Mass Ave flagship store. For the complete Stout family history and evolution of the store through the years, read their inspiring story on the Stout’s Shoes website.
If you would like to feel important where you shop and embrace the community’s long held traditions of small, boutique, family-owned retailers, come visit Stout’s shoes. Witness the city’s only indoor zipline, the Baldwin Flyer; talk with Ripley the parrot; get your feet measured; get your purchases wrapped in paper, as was always done in times past; spot multiple generations of a long-standing Indianapolis family working together to give you a unique experience. If you haven’t already, you may want to become part of the continuing story of an Indianapolis original, almost 13 decades long and a million-plus shoes in the making.
When did you last visit Stout’s? A number of people shared memories on facebook about the Baldwin Flyer. What stands out most in your memory or experieinces?
This article and a portion of this website is generously sponsored by Stout’s