The Two Shoemakers

Long ago, in a land far away, there lived a humble shoemaker.  He was plain and unassuming, residing in a modest cottage set in the shadows of the great forest. As a young man he had worked diligently at his craft and was content to lead a quiet and frugal life plying his trade in the bustling town.  He presented the same face to all of his customers and the townspeople, always forthright and honest in his dealings. The shoemaker was not really happy living in the town, though. He wished to continue doing business, but dreamed of having a home a little more removed from the carts and hawkers, the constant chatter, gossip and quarrels which are the stock of nearly anywhere that many people may congregate. He didn’t begrudge any of the townsfolk or hold any judgement against them and the way they chose to live: he just didn’t care to be in the middle of it all.

After having mastered his trade and accumulating some gold he had taken an old stable to rent and set up his shop. He required little more than the loft above for his personal quarters, furnished with a simple straw mattress and a small stove for the winters. He developed a sound reputation for producing a small repertoire of sturdy, well made and affordable shoes. They were not fancy or in any way decorative, but were consistently well made, properly sized and he always delivered as promised. His most popular creation was a sturdy and durable pair of boots which served well for woodsmen or hunters, farmers, or those who simply liked to hike the wilds. They were also an excellent choice for the winter months with a solid tread to travel the cold, wet snow, slush or mud of the season.  He had no rival in the town and his business flourished until he had set aside enough to purchase a small plot of ground along the lane that led from the town into the great forest beyond.

There he built his cottage of stone and great oak beams. He constructed a great fireplace in the middle of the cottage with a broad hearth on either side and a formidable stone and mortar tower to the roof to house the chimney. The front side of the cottage housed his workshop and all of its wares and was partitioned by a long, log wall running the length with a single door to enter the rear half of the home. Behind this wall, arranged about the other side of the hearth was his cook pot, water basin and a collection of cast iron and wooden cookware. There was also a small array of ceramic pots with lids and wax seals for the storage of dried goods, a rocking chair, a small wooden table with a pair of matching benches, and in the back corner of the cottage was his simple wood framed bed and a standing cupboard to house his modest wardrobe.

He put in a garden and taught himself how to can many of his summer vegetables. He later constructed a smokehouse for the drying of meats, acquired a horse for which he built a small stable and cart, and a collection of chickens and geese with a coop to house these as well. There was an abundance of berries, honey and various nuts from the neighboring forest and at need being a fair bowman he might dine regularly on hare, pheasant and deer. He had settled a very happy home which fulfilled all of his simple needs. He was not so far removed from town as to be inconvenient for his customers, many often bringing their children along to visit with the shoemaker’s horse or play with the chickens and geese. There were some smaller trees on the edge of the forest which were fine for climbing about, though the youngsters were always cautioned by their parents and the shoemaker both that they were not to wander any further into the forest. It was not often, but there were on occasion the chances that one might encounter a lumbering bear seeking berries or, in the worst case, the fearsome wild boar.

It was an idyllic life at this sylvan junction. The shoemaker’s trade remained steady and as years passed wagons and carts from other towns passed increasingly through the lane and others which led to the town. The town itself grew and he became acquainted with a second and then a third generation of customers. Word had travelled to other distant parts of the well crafted and excellent value of footwear to be had from his small shop, especially those boots.  As merchants would pass through to the town in increasing numbers the shoemaker was met with some of these who inquired if they might negotiate a price for a wholesale order of these fine boots to pick up in their next travels to take and sell in their own distant towns and villages. The shoemaker would always treat with this visitors in the most cordial fashion, often offering tea and at times make some inspection of some of the wares they carried. He was flattered at these offers, but always politely declined, telling them that he preferred to continue with his custom fitting and fine quality. He feared that production in scale might compromise the quality for which his boots were renowned. There was also the matter that as he now approached the early years of middle age he had begun to suffer the onset of fading vision and arthritis in his hands and joints. He simply wasn’t prepared to work that hard any more. Each time a merchant would reply that they would call again on their next trip and indeed they would, always with an attempt to change the shoemaker’s mind.

One year a winter came that was particularly cruel in its cold and wet assault upon his bones. Trade was good, to be sure. Those who had not already acquired a pair of his boots were most eager to obtain a pair for the long remaining winter months to come. The shoemaker worked at a steady pace, fulfilling the demand in as timely a manner as he was able, but with each passing day he was finding it more and more difficult to make his fingers work the needle smoothly or to see well enough without placing a great strain upon his eyes. Where he used to work by fire or candlelight well into the evening hours he now found that in the dancing shadow of the twilight hours his eyes might fail him altogether. He struggled mightily through this season yet still made it through not too much worse for the wear and with more gold coin stored up in his chest.

As the snows melted and March crawled into April he began to make ready for his garden. Being a shoemaker was his livelihood, but this simple farming was his true love. This year, though still very fulfilling for him, he grew very conscious of the fact that he was finding it more and more difficult to perform these chores. He could still manage to get it done, he just had to slow down and on some days take rest from it to recuperate from his labors. It was during this time that he began to think about what he was to do. He knew that the hands of time did not turn back, that his condition would reach the stage that he was no longer physically capable to do this work. And the same would eventually be true for his craft. So what would it be then? He had saved enough to sustain himself, but would he be able to continue to live here on his own? Never having taken a bride and with no children to carry on his legacy he began to think harder upon those offers from travelling merchants.  A small seed of an idea began to grow in his mind. Perhaps there was a way….

After a fairly rainy period around the middle of the month the clouds abated and a week of a steady, warming sun proclaimed the spring had finally arrived to stay. The warming air and sunlight were a restorative balm to his aching joints and he awoke one morning with more vigor than he had felt in months. He washed, pulled out his finest clothing and hitched the cart to his horse to ride into town. It was time to start working on his new plan. It would not be long now before those travelling merchants would return and each season seemed to bring more than the last.

As he rode into town in the mid morning hours he found good numbers of people out and about their business for the day. He was hailed from the street by many of his long time customers, to each he would politely nod and tip his hat in reply. He rode at a stately pace into the streets, noting new buildings and more underway. There were many more people than he had ever remembered. The shoemaker wound his way through the town until finally arriving at the smith’s shop. He pulled up the reins to halt his horse and climbed down from the buckboard seat to tie her off at the post and enter the forge. The fires were stoked, the smith in his heavy leather apron hammering away upon an anvil, so intent in his task that he failed to see that a guest had arrived. The shoemaker stood at a fair distance and patiently awaited a pause in the hammering to announce himself.  The smith finally paused in his labors to set the mighty hammer aside and brush the heavy sweat from his brow.

” Good day, smith!”

The smith let out a long sigh from exertion and turned from the shimmering heat to find his caller. ” Well hello, shoemaker! Good to see you about! What news from the forest?”

“Oh, little news, I fear, but all is well. I have some business for you and a favor to ask, if I may?”

The smith now set aside his tongs as well and took up a heavy cloth to brusquely wipe his hands of the grime and further daub at the sweat still pouring from his bald head. He stepped closer to the shoemaker and extended his hand in greeting. As they shook the smith replied, “Certainly, friend! What business and what might be that favor?”

“Well I need to have my horse re-shoed for the season, for the business. The favor would be more of a recommendation, I suppose.”

The smith nodded. “Aye! And what might that be?”

“Would you know of a young man of suitable age and skill to commend as an apprentice for my trade?”

The smith, for only a moment, appeared mildly surprised at what he had just heard, but then quickly his brow creased into some contemplation of the question. He scratched his jaw and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he searched his recollection of any fitting this description. After a minute or so the smiths face relaxed from the furrowed brow to reply, ” Well let’s bring your horse in here, shall we, and I’ll have to think a bit more on an apprentice. There might be a couple that I think of…”

The shoemaker led his horse in and left the smith to his work, telling him he would be about to visit some of the local shops and return soon. The smith replied that he didn’t expect to be more than a half hour at it and would hope to have some suggestion for him then. The shoemaker wandered up one side of the block and down the other, peering into any open storefronts to peruse textile goods, furniture, a candle and soap maker among others.  He did enter a small confectioners shop and treated himself to a stick of colored sugar candy in a red and white spiral. The proprietor was a jolly fellow with a shock of carrot hair who had purchased boots and shoes for his family for some years. The candy was a nice treat, but a bit more sweet than he was accustomed to. He broke off the tip to let it dissolve under his tongue and placed the rest into a deep pocket of his tunic.

By the time he had made his way back around to the smith’s he had nearly finished shoeing his horse, just completing some filing on the last hoof and pulling the nails from a bucket to finish the job. ” That was good timing, friend! Nearly finished with ‘er”, he said as he set the file down and took up a mallet to set the nails. After tapping in the first two for proper alignment he went on speaking without turning back to look at the shomaker. “Thought some on what ye’d been askin’…about an apprentice? There’s that Jones lad, the tanners boy. He’s fit enough for less strenuous work. He’s got some kind of problem with his breathin’….too sensitive to be around dust or smoke, or those nasty fumes at ‘is father’s place. He might be a good match for you.”  The smith finished placing the nails and set his tools aside, wiped his hands and softly brushed the back of the mare. ” All done with ‘er. Just two silvers, if you please? Ye know where the tanners place is?”

The shoemaker fished from a coin pouch to procure the smith’s payment and replied as he held out the two coins, ” Aye, I know that tanners place. Other side of the hill for the stink!”

“That’s right! Thank you, friend. Anything else for ye today?”

“No, thank you, smith! I’ve got what I came for today. I’ll ride up to the tanners and see if I can speak to the boy. What was his name?”

“Er….Desmond, I think it was. Yes! Desmond Jones, thats it! Well good luck to ye!”

The shoemaker hitched the mare back to his cart and rode off through the town to the lane that wound about the hill at the far side. The tanners was set mostly where the winds would not carry the awful reek of urine and caustic fume into the town, but as an added measure had been placed opposite the hill for those occasions when the breeze might sway back towards the settlement. Where the shoemaker lived on the outskirts by choice, Jones the tanner was placed there by necessity. He was an honest and skilled tradesman, but sadly the foul odor of his work seemed to follow him about making him a man to avoid on those times when he might come into their midst. The boy, Desmond, was normally sent to do his father’s bidding with the inhabitants and only thus was he known to the people. The shoemaker didn’t much care where the lad came from. If he was capable and willing to be trained he would be his choice. If the boy had physical limitations that precluded him from other occupations this might be well suited for him.

The shoemaker had a further motive, of course. If the lad was an able study and could take to the work quickly then he might produce enough product to fill those prospective orders for the travelling merchants, whose carts and wagons would soon return to this corner of the land. This would allow a further funding of his nest egg, letting him retire quietly to his little farm lot and nurse his failing condition in relative comfort until the end. The boy would then have the business to carry on on his own to have a livelihood more forgiving to his own malady. It surely seemed a good match.

As the shoemaker rode on through the growing town he saw many new faces, town dwellers he’d never encountered, though a number bore some resemblance to families he had come to know over the years. There were so many new settlements, it seemed the borders of the town had spilled out in all directions, save but two: his own little lane and the way to the tanners. There were distant farmers and hunters who had migrated in from the surrounding country to take a bride and take a trade to raise and support a family. It saddened him to some degree to see this, but accepted it as the way of things. There would always still be farmers as long people wished to eat, too many now conditioned to the town life that skills like growing, hunting, gathering from the land were fading from the population. Who could dream what wonders may come? But these were not for him. He was a simple man merely seeking to live out his days in simple fashion.

The noise and movement faded behind him as he emerged on the opposite side of the town to the winding way into the looming hills in the east. The road took a slow, steady climb as he approached the first of these, almost unnoticeable at first.  Entering the bend that wrapped around one side of the near hill the foul stench of the tanners first wafted to his nostrils, telling that it was not much further. The road continued its slight rise as the bend progressed around to the opposite side and then leveled off where the collection of shacks first came into view. A long, low wooden building with the many vats sat in the foreground. Beyond this and further up into the crease of where hills met there was a barn lot with a couple of dairy cows, some chickens pecking about the grounds and long set of cords strung between posts where hides and fabrics had been hung to dry. It was a sad and ramshackle looking homestead, yet the tanner’s trade seemed to be thriving. It was all the same as he had seen it so many times before.

He halted the mare and sat at this distance looking over their little settlement nestled into the hillside. As he further studied the grounds it occurred to him that in all of his trade with the tanner over the years for the supply of his leather he had never once seen or been introduced to his wife or children. Set off into such isolation he wondered what the tanner did with his earnings. Not that it was any of his concern, only as an idle curiosity, for he was certain that his trade had remained steady and only grown with the town. It was as he sat pondering this that he heard what sounded like a door slamming shut carry through the air. Alerted by this he again scanned across the grounds until spying the younger Jones for the first time.

A long and gangly youth with dark hair emerged with a loping gait from behind one of the little sheds that dotted the plot of ground. From such a distance he was unable to recognize any details of the lad’s appearance other than the fact that at the ends of his long limbs the hands and feet seemed exceedingly large in proportion to the rest of him. There was an almost comical quality in his movements, like the dancing of a jester at a summer fair.  The boy ambled across the lot towards the hanging lines, bringing him toward the lane. The shoemaker did not believe that he had yet been seen and waited until the tanner’s son reached the end of the posts to call out and announce himself.

“Hail, I say, boy! You are the tanner’s son?” His voice sounded clearly into the hollow between the hills and caught the boy’s attention. He stopped in his tracks and could be seen to cup both hands above his brow to shield the sun and peer up to the lane.

Once he had spotted the shoemaker’s horse and cart he seemed to falter in his stance, initially hesitant to answer. With one hand still held at his brow he took a few tentative steps toward the lane and only then did he muster some response. “Aye….that I am. Do you….er…have you some business for the tanner’s ?”

The shoemaker now felt at ease to proceed, gently prodding the mare to move forward. As the cart rolled ahead slowly he called again. ” Alas, no, my young man. My business may be with you. May I meet you at your gate to speak?”

The boy appeared mildly puzzled at this, looking about as if he suspected that this stranger was perhaps speaking to some other than he. He collected himself and began stepping backwards toward the front of their property. ” Come ahead, I will meet you at our gate.”

The shoemaker urged the mare on a little faster now, eager to pass by the sour fumes from the long row of vats on his left.  It was not as horrid as it would be in warmer months, but still enough to discourage any lingering nearby.  In moments he had arrived at the front gate outside of the Jones’ home and waited for the young man to meet him there. The shoemaker remained seated in the cart as he arrived at the gate. At this closer distance he could perceive that there was indeed something that ailed the lad. The only robust part of his anatomy were the oversized appendages that swung from the end of his limbs. Otherwise the lad was gaunt, a long horse-like face that was drawn to hollow cheeks, his shirt hanging upon his frame like an empty vessel swaying in the breeze. Overall an unhealthy look like a malnourished beggar. His skin had an unwholesome blend of jaundice, pallor and acne that would surely leave a pock-marked trail on his face when older. The shoemaker had to wonder suddenly if this was perhaps a bad idea, for surely this youth suffered from more than just a sensitivity of breath. Nevertheless he was here now. He had come to speak with him and he would. Things are quite often not as they may first appear.

“Good day, Master Jones. I’ve come at the suggestion of the town smith to speak with you about an apprenticeship proposition. Are you free to discuss this with me, or would you prefer your father to be present as well?” The boy’s expression contorted through several stages of perplexity as he weighed the shoemaker’s question. Once assuming the more normal aspect of his face he gazed directly with clear blue eyes that conveyed a genuineness. For whatever other shortcomings he might have it did not strike the shoemaker that there was any guile in him.

” No sir, I am free to speak. If we should find an accord then I will inform my father and he may ask what he will of you.”

Well. He was a well spoken young man. It was a somewhat curious response; answering the question while perhaps implying something more without actually saying it. The shoemaker noted this with the thought that this was a signal of one more clever than they might appear. It was here that he elected to climb down from the cart and meet at the gate.

“Very well. I should introduce myself. I am Samuel the shoemaker. I have a workshop on the opposite side of the town near the forest.” He considered for a moment to suggest that perhaps he would have heard of his boots, but glimpsing bare feet then thought better of this.  Desmond replied with a curt bow and ” pleased to meet you, sir.”

The shoemaker went on then. ” As you may see I have grown some advanced in years and I fear that I may not be able to perform my trade for much longer. I have no family of my own to whom I might pass on any legacy and there appears to be great opportunity to expand the fortunes of my craft, though sadly I am unable to fulfill these demands. I have thus decided to take an apprentice to train in this craft and assist in production for a period of a few years, after which I should want to retire and bestow the trade upon the apprentice to carry on for himself.”  There it was stated as the broad proposition, minus any more specifics of the terms. The shoemaker believed that this was enough to present initially and waited to observe the youth’s reaction.

Desmond had listened carefully and understood the proposition pretty clearly. He was not experienced enough in life to give any thought to more specifics.  In his head he performed a rapid assessment of his circumstance and considered the benefit which this proposition offered him. He was here, alone with his father, whose temperament like the environment of his trade was caustic. His mother had passed on long ago in his childhood. He was 19 now, and where other young men had joined in their fathers’ enterprise or taken an apprenticeship in trade by the age of 17, he had not been so fortunate. He had since an early age been prone to respiratory spasms, triggered or exacerbated by any smoke or heavy fume. A further consequence of this condition was that these made him vulnerable to fainting spells as well. For this he was either unwanted or unable to take on most trades available for a young man to set out on his own.  His father was begrudgingly tolerant of him remaining at home, accepting his cooking, errand running and such help as he was able to render in the daily operation of the tannery.

He had never given any thought to making shoes as a living, but for what little he knew or could guess of it he considered it would be a trade not too taxing upon his physical limitations. He was certainly well acquainted with the medium for their construction and already had some skill in forming leather into lacing for boots. Without any thought or care to any of the details he considered this a gift dropped from heaven. This offered a way off of the tannery and further held the prospect of a profitable livelihood for years to come.

The shoemaker observed carefully as Desmond stood in silence considering his proposition. The boy’s expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts or impressions at all; like a closed book with no title. Not even a hint as to what lay inside. As the silence hung heavily between them the shoemaker thought that perhaps he should provide some additional details of the arrangement, though he honestly had not thought all of these through himself. He had opened his lips just a fraction to begin to say something more when Desmond offered his initial response.

“When would this begin?”

The shoemaker knew this answer well enough, though it was hardly the first question he would have expected. ” As soon as possible. There are travelling merchants who will return soon with this season and have expressed an interest in purchasing a large lot to return for sale in their own lands. ”

Desmond was able to make a rather quick deduction from this. If the shoemaker’s trade grew to supply other trading merchants from other towns then this would require more leather, which in turn would equate further business for his father. If his father would hold any reluctance to allow him to leave and accept the offer this would be a sound point upon which to build his case for it. He was old enough now that his father could not bar him from it anyway, but there was still the matter of some respect. As to whether or not he could accept was a decision he was free to make on his own. Without further thought on the matter Desmond gave his reply.

” I will accept your offer, sir. If you would allow me a couple of days to settle some matters here I can be at your shop on the morn. I know where you are by the forest.”

 


 

In spite of his clumsy appearance and rather awkward manner Desmond proved to be a quite clever young man. He had shown to be a quick study and took to the work with ease.  He was quite intent on his work and with careful attention to small detail. In only a short time the shoemaker found that he could have confidence in the quality of his work and allow him to proceed with minimal supervision. There were still things to teach him in performing fittings and cutting and assembling for other designs, but for the immediate purpose of fulfilling larger orders Desmond had proven to be a skilled and highly productive boot maker.  For these larger orders there was not fitting involved; they worked from patterns. Desmond was able to replicate the template flawlessly with every pattern inside of a month, just in time to begin building for merchant orders.

For his labors Desmond was furnished a cot and meals and a stipend of 30 crowns per month. The work week was generally five and one half days per week, depending on the arrival of orders when either longer days or seven of seven days might be demanded. The larger boot orders were seasonal, in the spring and the fall, leaving him at some greater liberty the rest of the year. The shoemaker still did his part, though Desmond could outpace him in turning out finished boots at a rate of 2 to 1.  The shoemaker would do what he could for production and perform individual orders, create templates and cut leather to sustain the operations.

As these orders of boots landed in other towns and counties their exposure and the demand for them expanded. After three years the shoemaker was satisfied that he had taken enough profit from the trade that he could at last retire. Other merchants still arrived with each season seeking allotments of their own, but it had reached a point that some of these would simply have to be turned away.

At the time of the winter solstice that third year the shop was closed for a respite. The shoemaker had prepared a dinner of roast goose, yams, a dark bread with berry preserves, canned beans and a bottle of well aged wine. He intended to use this to mark a special occasion, one for which Desmond was unaware. When they sat down to light the candles on that shortest day of the year at dusk the shoemaker asked Desmond to open the wine, his own hands not up to the feat, pour their glasses and prepare for a toast.

“Desmond, I toast to you the blessing of another year of good fortunes passed in our endeavor and the hopes for many to come!”

Desmond raised his glass and responded ” Hear hear!”

They each drank from their glasses and then set to serving the dinner. The shoemaker offered a blessing and thanks for the meal and they began to dine. After a few morsels had been sampled from his plate the shoemaker set his utensils aside and began to speak.

“Desmond you have proven to be an exemplary pupil. The fortunes of this shop could not have achieved the great return of these last years without your fine craftsmanship and great labors. I don’t believe at this stage that there is anything more I could teach you. We have profited handsomely by the expansion of trade and I am now prepared to retire from my toils. The inventory, the tools, the many loyal customers all belong to you now. You have earned it.” He paused to raise his glass here in a further toast. Desmond had stopped eating and shared in more wine as he struggled to find some fitting words to offer. Before he could form these the shoemaker went on.

“In addition, Desmond, I have set aside 20% of the profits from our merchant orders and bequeath this sum to you. You may for a time continue to conduct the business here, but with this sum I expect that you will locate a new venue for the shop and carry on to further fortunes.”

So it was that the torch was passed. Though Desmond had not expected the announcement to come when or how it had, he had in fact been making future preparations for some time before. In addition to his mastery of the craft he had further honed his savvy for the business end of the trade. He had been able to save a fair portion of his stipend and had arranged to supplement this with the granting of a modest commission from his father for the increased trade in leather. He had already formed plans to exit the small cottage and erect a building solely for the manufacture of shoes and boots adjacent his father’s land. It put the primary supply of raw material for production right next door to the shop, never to leave it wanting for delivery of material to complete orders in a timely fashion. With all of these preparations in place and the sum of 150 gold sovereigns from the shoemaker Desmond was set to seek his own fortunes in good style.

The shoemaker settled quietly to his cottage with no cares for the town or the rest of the world beyond.  He spent his days before the warming sun or a warming fire as the seasons might decide, tending his small garden at a leisurely pace, watching the birds and serenaded by their songs and the sighing breeze. He would still take his cart into the town a few times a year for certain provisions or to hire for someone to cut wood or till the ground, tasks he could no longer manage.  From time to time he would have visitors, former customers who would come just to look in on him and bring pastries or other such delights. He was happy and content to spend the rest of his days in this fashion.

Now Desmond, it seemed, had always harbored a measure of shrewd acumen for business, little known to any that saw him. In the town he was still regarded by many as that silly looking boy from the stinking tanner’s, even though he had in recent years fitted and made boots or shoes for many of them. As he grew into adulthood he remained an angular figure but shed the once malnourished look. His color had grown better, though still rather pale, and much of his sensitivities had abated to a manageable level. Word got around that Desmond was now the man to see for boots and shoes, often evoking a groan for the need to travel near the tannery. Desmond was aware that this might disturb a number of his patrons, but in his long term plans this would no longer matter.

Desmond and his father hired and trained more workers for both the tannery and the shoe shop. Production capacity was tripled and was equipped to expand further. No longer did either of them perform the work themselves, instead supervising the work, training and managing the business end of things. Desmond’s plan was to end the practice of personal fittings. He had once been truly grateful to the old shoemaker, but as he learned that the production orders built from a range of size templates were more profitable he grew to have a disdain for the old man. What a fool! Working so hard for so little return! He was indeed a master of his craft, but he had no sense for business. Soon there would be a shoe and boot merchant in the town to take inventory in larger lots to distribute to the townspeople just the same as elsewhere. And Desmond had schemed a way to use this to take yet another bite from the apple. He would underwrite the opening of the store and install a stooge to run it. The store would pay for the inventory and Desmond would take a percentage of the store’s sales, in effect getting paid for the same product twice. And none would be the wiser.

It proved to be a good model and did indeed become quite profitable in a short time.  The business continued to grow and expand. People were generally pleased with the shoes and boots they could obtain from the shoe store, though they had certainly grown more costly. Still, the town was growing, more jobs became available and more commerce between the growing population grew into more jobs. As the town’s overall fortunes grew so did that of its residents.  The shoes became the most sought after in the land, the famous boots still the most popular. The arrangement that he had forged in the town soon became the same in other towns, taking a stake in those stores and even bestowing a brand name: Desmonds Shoes & Boots.

When his father decided to retire Desmond assumed direction of the tannery as well, expanding and modernizing it to increase capacity and efficiency. All he needed to do was oversee those he hired to manage these factories and rake in the profits hand over fist. With the arrangement he had made he was in for a cut of the action at every stage in the business.  As he amassed further and further fortune he took a bride and built a fine manor in the city. It was an ostentatious jewel of architecture to remind all that he, Desmond Jones, the smelly, skinny boy from that disgusting tannery, now had the finest home in town. Then there were mistresses, more land, homes, he couldn’t find enough ways to spend his wealth. Times were good.

Some years passed and the old shoemaker was still whiling away his time on the edge of the forest. He heard of Desmond’s spectacular success and swelled with pride at the results of his tutelage. He had never wanted all of that, but was happy for Desmond just the same. He sometimes wondered, though, why he never heard from him. He had been to visit only twice since striking out on his own, and even then only very briefly. Why it had been years since he’d even heard word from him. The shoemaker had never been one to hold any grudge and attributed it to the very busy nature of what had become multiple enterprises.

Life had grown in bounds for all in the town. The distant throne of the land and the monarch who occupied it were of no consequence to them. Then the war came. One day news travelled to their ears that a new monarch had ascended the throne and through some quarrel with relatives over the order of succession the country had been plunged into war with a neighboring land. It was disturbing news, to be sure, but in the near term made little difference to their happy lives in the town. It would not, however, take long for this to change.

First came the levy of burdensome taxes, expropriated under threat of imprisonment, forfeiture or worse. When soldiers came with arms and many horses they were surrounded and under the point of the sword were left little alternative but to submit. This was followed by more of the king’s soldiers coming to take their sons to make more soldiers. The people paid tribute to the crown under threat with first their treasures and then their blood. These were dark days that followed, but not for all.

The army needed many pairs of boots for their soldiers. Their soldiers could not march into battle after battle without sturdy footwear. The only place where they might obtain such numbers of good quality boots was Desmond’s factory and he was only too happy to oblige their need. The coin extracted from the townspeople would now, at least in some part, land in his coffers. It was just too good to be true!

An emissary of the king came to see Desmond at his handsome manor. He was acting as an agent for the crown and had been authorized to issue an order for no less than 50,000 pairs of boots and an urgency for 15,000 of these to be delivered in a month’s time with similar increments at 60-90 day intervals. If the war were to drag on of course there would be more. Desmond assured the king’s agent that they could accommodate their need and would be proud to serve the crown and the army in this way. He was starting to count the gold already.

There was an element of this which Desmond had not anticipated. The crown was only prepared to part with a price per pair which was considerably below the normal margin. Then there was the matter of how he was to be paid. Desmond would not receive the actual gold for the sale, rather a writ of credit from the crown would be deposited to an account set up specifically for the contract. An account with the crown’s official bank, of course. This was a less than optimal arrangement to Desmond’s thinking, but he began to scheme how he might make some advantage of it. Would he have free access to this credit from the bank? Why of course, he was assured. He made some further calculations in his head over dinner with the agent and with brandy served after the dinner he agreed to and signed the contract.

He planned to pay the tannery for materials with monies from the shoe factory, simply moving funds from one pocket to another in the same pair of trousers. He would utilize the writ of credit to purchase more hides for the tannery and then funnel the finished leather direct to the shoe factory to backfill materials inventory. Any sale of goods outside of the crown contract could be taken at 100% profit, using the writ of credit to pay his workers as well. This would more than make up for the lesser margins of the contract, increasing volume and overall profits at the same time. All he had to do was continue this process again and again, always keeping ahead of the curve. It was brilliant! The longer the war went on the more money he made.

He was also clever enough to play this contract as a plus to the store customers. Each Desmond Shoes & Boots store would proudly display a poster in their storefront with the image of the kings valiant soldiers marching into battle with the legend beneath reading: Desmond Shoes & Boots, proud to carry your sons in their brave fight against the enemy! The patriotic message perhaps did little to grow sales, but it was a master stroke of good public relations. It made people feel good about buying Desmond Boots!

The war did indeed drag on. Each campaign promised the final victory. And each campaign only delivered more death with no foreseeable end. Now Desmond thought that things just could not get any better, and his personal treasury agreed with that sentiment. There evolved, however, a consequence which he had not foreseen. In the ongoing effort to fulfill the demands of their army contract the factory had begun to cut some corners. Consumer orders were delayed in preference for army orders. Some stores did not see delivery of more product for weeks at a time. When they did it was often found that “seconds”, material rejects which had previously been disposed or repurposed were now being substituted to fill partial orders for the consumer market. Customers would arrive daily with some complaint of poor workmanship in their recently purchased shoes and boots. Leather uppers and tread not properly aligned. Loose stitching causing the uppers to tear or to separate from the soles. As the army’s demands grew and grew these problems with the consumer market also grew until something Desmond never imagined would occur. In order to fill their needs for shoes and boots small shops began to spring up in towns across the land, serving that need in much the same way as the old shoemaker had done before.

He was so consumed with keeping the contracts and shuffling finances from one fund to another, and back again, that this situation developed without any knowledge of what was happening. Orders from Shoes & Boots stores ceased. Some shops simply locked the doors and the storekeepers walked away. This went on for some while until the profit subsidy from consumer sales had evaporated to a negligible level. Desmond first became aware of what was happening when he happened to spy some citizens on the streets of town wearing shoes and boots which were most definitely not from his factory. Upon inspection he found that these were made with lesser materials, or perhaps the stitchings were not as precise, but all in all passed muster as at least a suitable pair of shoes. Then he learned of the purchase price and the alarms sounded.

Prompted by this to investigate further he found that footwear such as this had begun to spring up in nearly every quarter of the kingdom. This led to the further alarming discovery that some stores had closed their doors and been left abandoned. Under this set of circumstances there was absolutely no way the model of the army contract could be sustained. He would have to hope for a swift end to hostilities – not likely- or, ask for an increase on the contract sell price – again, not likely. Otherwise he would be ruined! There was one other possibility….

Desmond sent an urgent dispatch to the crown’s agent describing the perilous conditions that these “rogue” and “black market profiteers” posed to Desmonds Boots and in turn to the continued supply to the army. If the crown could perhaps outlaw these unauthorized makers to protect him, their valued supplier? On receipt of the message the agent conferred with the king, urging him to issue a decree to save Desmond’s from this unfair opportunism. The crown had a further motive in keeping Desmond happy which he did not know.  If he were to learn that the writs of credit issued from the royal bank were now nigh unto worthless it could be disastrous. It could be the first piece to fall that would bring the entire house of cards tumbling to the ground. The kingdom would face ruin and defeat.

Two days later a courier arrived with a brief answer from the agent and a copy of the royal decree banning all but Desmonds from the production of shoes and boots in the kingdom. He was saved! At least for the time being. He wasn’t so fool as to think that he didn’t need to revive his consumer sales. Over the course of some late nights he devised a set of solutions.

First there were to be new shopkeepers installed at those stores which had been abandoned. Inventories were boosted as much as could possibly be spared. Then he returned to his role as craftsman and began to design a new set of templates and to make a sizable buy of sheep on the shaky livestock market.  In a gesture of apology to his patrons mutton was offered with the purchase of shoes. The hides were collected from slaughter to the tannery where these were converted to the less costly and lighter sheepskin. With manpower being rapidly depleted in the kingdom he found it necessary for the first time to recruit and train women for work in the factory. Within six weeks time the added production was staffed and trained to begin to produce the sheepskin shoes exclusively for the consumer market. The “brave soldiers” posters were removed and replaced with an apology and an appeal to all Desmond Shoes & Boots patrons:

Please accept this, my most sincere apology, for having failed to deliver the standard of quality and service that you have come to expect from Desmond Shoes & Boots.  The war has created difficult circumstances for us all as we have each been called to make some measure of sacrifice. It is in this spirit of sacrifice for king and country that Desmond Shoes & Boots now offers a solution to some of these difficulties we have found ourselves in. In order to sustain our commitment to the king’s soldiers and meet the expectations of all of you, our loyal patrons, we are pleased to introduce a new line of footwear exclusively for our consumer market: SoftShoe. In order that we may conserve leather required for army boots we have created this new product made with the finest quality sheepskin. SoftShoe offers the same quality workmanship you have come to expect from Desmond Shoes & Boots. Come on inside the store and give them a try!

If only the people were to know the true nature of the “sacrifices” made. With his competition eliminated by royal decree the crown could be seen as the goat, while Desmond Shoes & Boots demonstrated their commitment to both the country and their loyal customers. The people would all say, “Isn’t that Desmond Jones a great man? Why he is not only a patriot, but he has still worked hard to find a way to look out for us too!”Of course none of this was true, but nonetheless it is how it came to be perceived by many. That clever Desmond Jones had found a way to look after the needs of our valiant soldiers and keep us all supplied with shoes for our families at great cost to himself and his company. The new SoftShoe, in addition to being fully stocked, was offered at a price 40% less than the traditional line of Desmond footwear. Again, whether true or not, a perception was created that this reduction in price came at a drastic reduction in Desmond’s bottom line. The reality was that even with this substantial reduction in sale price the wide disparity in the price paid for the sheep hides more than made up the difference. And to top it all off the sheep were purchased from his royal bank writ of credit, taking nothing from the liquidity of the company.

The ploy worked. Customers, albeit with nowhere else to go, returned to Desmond’s stores and the sale of the new SoftShoe took off. They were not as good as the originals, but they were at least as good as those replacement shoes that had sprung from the ground before the decree banning them. For Desmond there was the added advantage that these did not wear as long as leather, creating a need for more frequent replacement. It began to appear that everything was going to work out just fine, and for a time it was.

Then the war ended. The kingdom had finally prevailed in battle, but in a sense had still lost the war, so high was the price paid in blood and treasure. Within months of the end the collapse of the royal bank could no longer be postponed. The well had run dry, the vault was empty. The payout at the end of the line that Desmond had counted on would not come to be. The writs of royal credit were worth less than nothing. Now being the shrewd man that he was Desmond’s personal fortune had been amassed in gold, which was now worth more than ever. For the Desmond Shoes & Boots, however, it was a different matter entirely. No longer were they able to obtain materials needed for production. No longer could they meet the payroll of their workers. And with everyone’s currency now worthless there were no more sales to be had anyway. Like the shopkeepers during the war who simply walked away from their stores Desmond simply locked the doors and walked away to engage in a new endeavor: The Desmond Bank.

This crisis, as they always do, passed eventually. The soldiers came home, businesses and trades sputtered to a start again and the people began to return to a normal life. As their SoftShoes eventually wore out the people of the town were left to wonder where they might now find new shoes and boots? With Desmond Shoes & Boots closed it was unclear if the royal decree banning other shoemakers was still in force. There seemed to be none rushing forward to fill this gap. As remaining pairs in stores dwindled a group of citizens began to discuss this problem among themselves.

“Hey! What about the old shoemaker? I think he’s still around out there by the forest. Maybe we could go see him.”

“Him! Why he’d have to be 100 if he’s a day!”

Another chimed in. ” No, no! He’s not quite that old. Maybe he’s 80, but no more. He doesn’t move so fast, but he’s still out there. I’ve seen him sitting out sunning himself on warm days.”

“Hmm. Maybe we should go to see him. He could help out until something else comes up, I suppose.”

And so it was agreed that this small party of four would ride to the cottage at the edge of the great forest and seek out the old shoemaker. It was a fair autumn day, a mild breeze but with plenty of sunshine. As they rolled up the lane to the cottage the old shoemaker was indeed sunning himself on his front porch, ensconced upon a rocking chair. He was near totally blind now, but could hear their approach and make out the fuzzy outlines of movement out on the lane. He watched, inasmuch as he could, and listened carefully for their voices.

“Hello? Mr Shoemaker?”

He replied with a feeble croak, “Aye.Thats me. Used to be. I’m just Samuel now. You’ll need to come closer dear!”

At this they made the short walk over to the porch. The young woman spoke again for their little group. ” Mr. Shoemak…..er, uh….Samuel. We’re glad we found you out today. It is a lovely day, isn’t it?”

The old shoemaker chuckled softly and then replied, ” My dear I’m afraid you should save the small talk. No offense, but at my age I fear I don’t have the time left for it.”

This evoked some laughter from the group and with the ice thus broken she began to state their business. ” Samuel, you heard that the war has ended?”

“Has it? Well…..yes, I had heard there was a war. You say it has ended? Well good. War is a nasty business…”

“Yes sir, it is. We’re all glad it’s over. Uh…since the war ended a lot of shops and businesses have folded up…”

“Oh? Why that’s a shame, isn’t it?”

” Yes sir, it is. Sir, the reason we rode out here today is because the town is in need of a shoemaker…”

The old shoemaker seemed genuinely surprised at this. “Oh? My goodness….what has happened to Desmond?”

” Desmond had to close his factory after the war, I’m afraid. He is a banker now.”

“Is he? Well, well…. I always knew he’d be a success, that one! You know he was my apprentice?”

“Yes sir, uh, we did. Umm….well that’s partly why we came out here to see you. You see we were wondering if maybe you might be able to make some shoes. Only for a short while, of course, until another shop gets started….”

” Well what about some of those fellows that worked in his factory?”

“Well sir that may be, but Desmond locked everything up. All of the tools, the patterns. We don’t have anything to start with.”

“Oh my. Yes, yes…that would make it rather hard at first….” The shoemaker sat nodding, his mouth still open as though prepared to say something more. They all waited, looking at one another with quizzical expressions, wondering who should speak next. Then the old shoemaker cleared his throat. ” Eh-hehmm….excuse me. You know when I first came here the town was no more than a few shacks and a stable. There were four families here. And a mill. That was all. I learned my trade self taught, I did. Started from nothing, just a few tools and some leather. As the town grew I had more customers, worked hard at it and I got quite good at it. I never got any special equipment or special training for it. I just figured it out, I did good work and I made a fair livelihood at it for years. Why I probably fitted shoes for your granny, sweetheart. ”

“I’m sure you must have yes.  Maybe you could still help us somehow? Teach us how to measure, make patterns…..”

” Missy I don’t mean to hurt your feelings in any way, truly I don’t. Just listen now. There is nothing magical about making shoes or boots, alright? Any soul can do it. There is nothing to it today that there wasn’t years ago. I’ve been out here alone for a long while, but I don’t think peoples’ feet have changed any, have they?”

“Umm….no, sir. I don’t think they have, that is true.”

“Well, there you are, see. You young folk don’t need my help. I’m blind now and probably be little help to you anyway.  Go on back to your town and figure it out. I did. What was right then is still right today. No good me telling you. You have to figure it out for yourselves. You’ll either get it right or you won’t. The world will go on either way and people will still have their feet.”

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