- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - For nearly 42 years, a shop on McGalliard Road has kept children at the heart of its business. And by doing so, it has found a way to take one of the most seemingly aggravating tasks for parents and turn it into a memory they cherish.

Brinkman’s Children’s Shoes fits footwear for Muncie’s littlest feet. And when those little feet grow, the shop moves on to fitting the next generation. It specializes as a children’s shoe store, something for which its founders saw a need in the community when opening in the mid-1970s.

The store announced its closing on Facebook in November, citing the owner’s retirement as the reason. The post prompted almost 200 comments from people around the community, saddened by the soon-to-be loss. Doors are expected to shut permanently on Dec. 23, or before if all shoes sell out.

Frank Brinkman Sr. opened the shop and then passed the reins to his son, Tony Brinkman, who ultimately made the decision to retire and close the business. Since its start, Brinkman’s has been in three different Muncie locations, the most recent at 720 W. McGalliard Road.

“I think it’s kind of neat that I was here the first day we opened, and I’ll be here the last day that we’re open,” Tony Brinkman said. “To watch it through, that’s just a blessing and a half. I pinch myself a lot that we’ve been able to do this.”

Brinkman said he has always worked to provide a family-friendly atmosphere, with an understanding that “we’re a kids store,” and that employees need to tie in a positive experience for the child to ensure a smooth shoe-buying process for the parent.

The store was open evenings and weekends to accommodate the schedules of school-aged children. A giant balloon machine in the shape of a doll sat in the store’s southwest corner, visible through the windows to drivers traveling down Muncie’s busiest road. Shoes were displayed low, at a kids-eye level. A miniature staircase was positioned by the register, so children could test out the footwear on more than just flat ground.

This helped Brinkman’s gather a following. Shoe-shopping there became a tradition for many. Occasionally, Brinkman would fit shoes for three generations in one family.

When Karen Gilliam was a mom of infants, she knew she needed to establish a consistent, go-to shop for buying her children’s shoes. She chose Brinkman’s for its “excellent quality” footwear and service with a “personal touch.”

It stuck, even more than 35 years later, when her kids had kids and moved to Chicago. She maintained the tradition, taking her grandchildren there to buy a pair of shoes for the new school year when they were in town.

“I cried,” Gilliam said, after hearing the news of its closing. “I understood, but still, it made me sad. It’s sad for our community and other communities to lose small stores like that and only be left with the big box stores. You lose that personal touch and someone who really knows your family.”

Gilliam said she hasn’t yet picked out her next go-to. She’ll need a little time to fill the void Brinkman’s filled for three and a half decades.

“Even the grandkids in Chicago kind of let out an ‘Awwww’ when I told him (about the closing),” Gilliam said.

“I’m happy for him, but sad for us.”

Go into the shop today, and you won’t find the original display in its entirety. The balloon machine and staircase remain, but shoes are set out on fold-out tables in the center of the room. Clearance signs are displayed inside and out, showing discounts that increase each week to help clear inventory. That inventory diminishes with each passing day.

When those shoes are sold off the tables, that’s it.

Times have changed since Brinkman’s father opened the store. Online sales have become much more prevalent, and it sometimes appears retail outlets are losing their luster. But Brinkman said he was “never concerned” that a bigger chain would infringe on business. His reasoning? Those bigger chains don’t want to mess with children’s shoes. There are too many different size options. Brinkman’s bridged that gap, offering more than 240 sizes, from narrow to triple-wide, to better address each child’s unique development.

Interestingly enough, Tony Brinkman and his wife of 38 years, Ellen, never had kids of their own. “Maybe that’s why we didn’t, because you just pour yourself into this,” he said of his commitment to his business. Instead, Brinkman learned what worked through years of practice and with values instilled from his father.

Now, on the verge of retirement, Brinkman said he looks forward to “just not being rushed all the time.” He plans to focus on time with his wife, who used to go to weddings and events by herself because he worked weekends. Now, the couple can get back to what they enjoy together, like running more marathons. Brinkman said they have completed one in every state, having just conquered Alaska in June. (Surely, their expertise in shoes helps make running much easier.)

When the new year begins, Brinkman will take his next step in life. But after he puts one foot in front of the other and closes his store’s doors for the final time, he said he won’t ever take his experience as a business owner for granted.

“The outpouring of love since we’ve started this thing and (beginning) closing three weeks ago, it’s just been incredible because people are just stopping by and thanking me for fitting their kids in shoes,” Brinkman said. “And I think, you’ve afforded me to really make a nice living for myself.

“Man, I’m thanking you.”

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The Star Press: http://tspne.ws/2AOwXaK

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com


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