Sunday, July 27, 2003

Last-of-its-kind pulley system
lure at shoe store

By Dana Knight
The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS - Stout's Shoes is the kind of place where people say they got their first pair of shoes - even if they didn't.

Where old polish is stacked in slots on the wall. Where feet still are measured by salespeople. Where the walls down in the basement are crafted out of worn shipping boxes.

And on a day bustling with shoppers, it's where the Baldwin Flyer still shines.

"On a busy day, all you hear is the swish-swish-swish-swish of the baskets going up and down," says Brad Stout, co-owner of the 117-year-old store on Massachusetts Avenue. "It is a lot of fun to get them going back and forth."

Stout's Shoes this year marks 75 years of the pulley and crank system, called the Baldwin Flyer, that became outdated at least 50 years ago and is virtually extinct today. It's also a little twist of history that lures people back to the store.

For the unfamiliar, it works like this: A clerk takes a customer's shoes to the counter. They are loaded into a basket with a worn leather cash box and pulled up a wire to a mezzanine where an employee, often Stout, checks for mates, makes change and wraps the box in brown paper, then shoots it back down.

Stout still isn't sure exactly what the point of the Flyer was - or is. He figures his family purchased it in 1928 because it was being marketed as a labor-saving device.

"Labor-saving? I don't know what they were doing beforehand," says Stout, chuckling. "But I'll never get rid of it. As long as I'm here, it will be here."

But why, if the baskets slow the process, would Stout hang on?

"Because if you sit in that office up there, every single day you will see an adult come in with a child and point and say, 'Look. That's what I was talking about. There are the baskets,' " he says.

Customers aren't put off by the antiquated checkout system.

"It's amazing," said Sarah Lewis, a customer of Stout's since the 1950s. "It was nice then and still is."

History can be priceless in drawing consumers, and the pulley system is Stout's brand distinction, says Richard Feinberg, a retailing professor at Purdue University and director of the Center for Customer-Driven Quality.

"How else are they going to compete?" Feinberg says. "You can get a Nike shoe in 50 other places probably cheaper and more convenient than Stout's." But at Stout's you get the Baldwin Flyer.

"There is something quaint and distinctive about the pulley system," he says. "It can be charming, and it can bring sales."

It also brings people from around the country to see a system that its maker, J. L. Baldwin Conveyor Co., says now can be found in active use only at Stout's Shoes.

The Flyers are so rare that the Smithsonian Institution contacted Blume, based in Rosemont, Ill., asking for one to put on display. Blume said he didn't have a free one to spare, and he says the Smithsonian didn't want to pay for it.

Blume acknowledges that the system is antiquated now. But he can explain why the Baldwin Flyer was important when it came on the market in 1900. It was sold mostly to dry goods stores, whose owners didn't necessarily trust the clerks. They had no way of knowing whether the clerks were giving friends good deals or pilfering items for themselves, because there were no receipts.

Sending the goods and the cash to a central and trustworthy cashier, or the owners themselves, was a good way to track the merchandise and the money.

"Then cash registers came along and eliminated everything," says Blume.

The Baldwin Flyer became virtually useless, though 16-year-old Brady Stout, a fifth-generation Stout's worker, insists it's helpful. Employees don't have to run upstairs to make a cash exchange, and they don't have to go upstairs to wrap the shoes, he says.

"When it's busy, it's actually very effective," he says.

Decades ago, a green parrot was kept in the children's department at Stout's. Fifteen to 20 years after its death, customers continued asking about the parrot.

Seven years ago, Stout brought back a green parrot, named Ripley.

"There are many customers who don't know the bird was ever gone," says Stout. "He's like the baskets. It's all part of the lure of the store."

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Last-of-its-kind pulley system lure at shoe store