Ralph Baker’s Shoes settling in at new location
By Mark Wineka
Ralph Baker Sr. and his son, Ralph Jr., consider themselves “old shoe dogs.”
And who can blame them?
Ralph Sr. has marked his 50th year in the shoe business by relocating Ralph Baker’s Shoes to a new “uptown” location at 428 N. Main St.
He began selling shoes in 1959 for N.L. and Eddie Walker at Walker’s Rowan Shoes.
In 1976, Ralph Sr. started his own business at a time when downtown Salisbury had eight different shoe stores.
Now only Ralph Baker’s Shoes remains.
Ralph Jr., 40, joined his father in the shoe business early on and, as a certified pedorthist, specializes in producing orthotic inserts to fit anyone’s foot.
Meanwhile, their employees add close to 200 years of experience in the shoe business.
The Bakers’ conversion of the former auto parts store on North Main Street took 14 months.
They moved from their longtime presence in the 200 block of South Main Street and, so far, have no regrets.
“We love the store,” Ralph Sr. says, describing plans for a grand opening after they’re sure all the kinks have been worked out. They opened in the new spot April 6.
The smaller, one-story location has made Ralph Baker’s Shoes a bit more focused without losing its No. 1 trait ó customer service.
“We’ve changed from being all things to all people to comfort footwear only,” Ralph Jr. says. “Every shoe we carry has some comfort value.
“This has been our focus for the last 10 years, but now we’ve eliminated the styles and brands that no longer fit our mix.”
That said, Ralph Baker’s Shoes keeps about 18,000 pairs of shoes, “which is still more than you’ll find in most shoe stores,” Ralph Jr. says.
The store carries full lines of SAS and New Balance shoes, both U.S. made, and Ralph Sr. estimates that 75 percent of their stock is still produced in this country ó something that’s important to him.
The new location has become a destination point, Ralph Sr. says.
Before, on South Main Street, more people were walking in and browsing around. Now, when they drive to the North Main Street location, which offers better parking, they are usually walking in to buy something, he says.
From 1976-85, Ralph Baker’s Shoes operated out of 212 S. Main St., then moved to a huge space in the ground floor of the old Empire Hotel at 216 S. Main St.
Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s redevelopment plans for the old hotel have been well-publicized. The organization wanted the shoe store to stay, but under short-term leases.
“We wanted to own something,” Ralph Sr. says.
The Bakers looked at towns such as China Grove, Spencer and Mocksville before settling on the North Main Street location in Salisbury. They also have bought the old Army-Navy store behind them along West Cemetery Street, renovating it to rent for retail or offices.
The father and son had “grand visions,” Ralph Jr. says, of changing the front of their new shoe store by adding a stone facade and arched windows. But the plans met a roadblock because the building lies within the North Main Street Historic district, the Bakers said.
They painted three sides of the exterior but left the storefront in its original configuration.
The stone they meant to use on the outside has become a handsome feature in the interior retail space.
“The No. 1 improvement with our move,” Ralph Jr. says, “has been the easier customer access with our side parking lot and no steps to get in the building, as with our previous location.”
Customers are encouraged to try the store’s new Aetrex “I-step” digitized foot scanner, which gives a colorful display (and printout), mapping the pressure points on their feet.
It also measures shoe size, determines arch type and recommends the best over-the-counter insert in the store for a customer’s casual or athletic shoe.
“We’ve had very positive response from this process,” Ralph Jr. says. “It has shown many people that they don’t have to live with foot pain.”
Ralph Jr., who devotes virtually all his time to making custom foot orthotics, meets by appointment with the store’s prescription and custom footwear clients in a back private office outside of his orthotic lab.
He received his first schooling in orthotics in 1997 in Oklahoma, and it has been a continuing education and recertification process ever since.
He makes orthotics for people across the country who don’t have their own fabrication facilities. In Rowan County, Ralph Baker’s Shoes has a close working relationship with many physicians, who prescribe that their patients dealing with diabetes, back and knee pain see the store about custom-made inserts for their shoes.
The turnaround time is usually a week, and the custom inserts cost $400, which often is covered by insurance. The price covers all evaluation, casting and follow-up visits if necessary.
The Bakers say the increased comfort, leading to an improved lifestyle, is worth the cost.
Ralph Jr. is a diabetic himself, dealing with the disease since he was 8 years old.
“If your feet, knees or lower back hurt, your first course of action should be to get fit in a comfortable pair of shoes,” Ralph Jr. says. “If your shoes don’t alleviate the pain, you are a candidate for orthotics.”
Ralph Jr. examines feet and makes an impression from which a plaster model is made. The orthotic material, ranging from soft foam to rigid plastics, is then heat-formed and vacuum-molded over the model.
He sands and shapes the raw orthotics to fit his customers’ shoes.
The expensive custom orthotics are not always the best answer, Ralph Jr. says.
“In fact,” he says, “I try to be as conservative as possible and typically recommend one of our high-quality, prefabricated orthotics.”
The Bakers keep files on the customers who order orthotics and also store the molds of their feet in case they need to reorder.
When the Bakers took on the building’s renovation, they wanted to cushion the 5,700 square feet of concrete floor from front to back.
Ralph Sr. said he used boards and three-quarter-inch plywood as a covering to give the floor some spring for his customers and employees.
Just one more trick from an old shoe dog.