When Walter Mast went into business for himself in 1942, there were nine shoe stores on the street. Today, Mast's is the sole survivor.
When Walter Mast opened his shoe store on Main Street in 1942, friends warned him he would never make a go of it. Not only were there eight other shoe stores nearby, but he sold only one line. Now, forty-nine years later, Mast's is the last shoe store on Main Street.
Mast's first store was at 121 South Main between Washington and Huron (now part of the NBD branch), near the courthouse and across from Goodyear's department store. Though Mast was only thirty at the time, he'd been selling shoes for well over a decade. Born here in 1912 (his family home on Third Street was on this year's Old West Side Homes Tour), he started working as a teenager at Mack and Company, the big department store on the corner of Liberty and Main, just a few blocks from his house.
Mack's was the training ground for many of Ann Arbor's future business owners (Mae Van Buren, who founded the Van Buren Shop, worked in Mack's lingerie department). Owner Walter Mack was a grouchy man, Mast says, but took a liking to him and hired him for a variety of odd jobs, including unpacking china and filling the drinking water tanks on each floor. The teenager got to drive Mack to his cottage on Whitmore Lake in his fancy Cadillac.
After a succession of these small jobs, Mast became a shoe salesman. Mack's shoe department was on the first floor near the Liberty Street entrance. Only a few shoes were kept out on display. Most of the inventory was stored behind a partition, and salesmen brought out boxed shoes for their customers to try on--a system that has been replaced by self-service in many stores, but which Mast's uses to this day.
Walter Mast graduated from Ann Arbor High School and took business classes at Ypsilanti Normal College, but decided he would rather be in business than study it. He went to St. Louis for a one-year training course with the Wohl Company, the shoe manufacturer that managed Mack's shoe department. At that time, St. Louis was the shoe capital of America: all the major shoe companies were located there. After his training, Mast serviced fifteen Wohl stores in Michigan, then managed one in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. When a Susquehanna River flood closed that store, Mast returned to Ann Arbor to manage the shoe department at Jacobson's, also a Wohl outlet at the time.
After two years at Jacobson's, Mast decided to make the big leap and open his own store. He began by selling Tweedie shoes, a line of dress shoes made in Jefferson City, Missouri. He thought it was a good line, and he was a friend of the company's local sales representative. He convinced his friend to give him some shoes to start with, which he paid for as he sold them. Mast gradually added other lines, but he continued to sell Tweedie until the company went out of business.
The first Mast's was so small that deliveries were made to the front door--althere was no back entrance. Mast and his wife, Helen, fixed the upstairs into an apartment for themselves that could be reached directly from the store or from an outside stairway. Following the model he had learned at Mack's, Mast stressed personal service, a wide variety of sizes, and good, practical brands that fit well and wore well.
Since war rationing was in effect when Mast started his business, customers needed government-issued coupons to buy a pair of shoes. Mast in turn collected the coupons until he had enough to place his own next order. He also had a stock of "coupon-free" shoes made of nonessential materials, such as gabardine, cardboard, or what Mast remembers as "a synthetic felt-like substance." Occasionally, free days were declared when customers could buy shoes without coupons.
A year after he started the business, Mast himself was called to serve in the war, so Helen took over the store's management. After Tom, their first child, was born, she supervised both a sitter upstairs and the staff downstairs. Although it had once been very common for owners to live upstairs over their stores, it was rare by then. She remembers that policemen on the Main Street beat, knowing she was by herself, would stop by every night to make sure she was all right.
When Walter Mast returned from service, he began expanding his business, opening a store in Owosso in 1945 and a second Ann Arbor store, on Liberty near the U-M campus, in 1947. At first, the two local stores had identical inventories--penny loafers and saddle shoes for students and pumps and oxfords for the adults. In 1968, the Main Street store moved a block south to its present location at 217 South Main.
In the 1960's, the two Ann Arbor stores began to diverge, mirroring changes in demand. The campus store sold stretch boots and platform shoes to U-M students, while the Main Street store continued with the classic adult styles. Interestingly, the stores have come almost full circle and now carry very similar stock. The people who grew up wearing tennis shoes are old enough to have jobs and to need dress shoes. But having grown up in unconfining shoes, they are buying the lightweight, comfortable brands that have long been the mainstay of the Main Street store.
"Fashion goes in cycles, with different themes repeating themselves over and over again, but nothing ever comes back exactly the same," says Mast. When he opened his first store, open-toed and open-heeled shoes were the style for women. Right now, he says, similar styles are big in Europe and will probably hit the United States in the near future. In between have come spike heels, pointed toes, monster chunky shoes, western boots, and clogs.
Mast is now semi-retired, and his sons, Tom and Greg, have taken over the day-to-day management, Tom of the Liberty Street store (plus a Cadillac store that he started) and Greg the Main Street store. (The Owosso store was closed last year.) Both sons worked in the stores part-time and summers as soon as they were old enough, studied business in college, and then got jobs--Tom teaching business at a small college and Greg working at a bank--before returning to Ann Arbor and the family business.
Mast is pleased with that. Studies show, he says, that the average life of a family business is thirty-seven and a half years, or one generation. Mast even has his eye on the third generation--he notes that he and Helen are blessed with six grandchildren.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Left) Walter Mast in his original store in the 1940's, standing second from right. His family lived in an apartment right upstairs from the tiny store. (Below) Mast and son Greg in the present Main Street Mast's.