Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Several years ago, Phil Brewer learned a valuable lesson that has shaped the way he and his wife, Kendra, have run their business.
The Brewers bought the Wilkins’ Shoe Center in Old Town Winchester in 2005 from Jimmy Wilkins, whose father James Wilcox Sr. founded the store in 1947. Jimmy Wilkins, who still works in the store, passed along some advice based on his family’s decades of experience.
“It’s hard to run a shoe store sitting in your office,” Wilkins said, and Brewer has taken that to heart, making regular trips to schools, restaurants, hospitals, doctor’s offices and other area businesses to build and maintain relationships with coaches, athletic directors, podiatrists, physical therapists and others who have become regular customers through the years.
“I think a lot of business is based on relationships,” Brewer said recently. “People still want to be satisfied.” Once or twice a month, Phil Brewer also tries to visit assisted living facilities in the Winchester area and offer fittings for residents.
Phil and Kendra were childhood sweethearts who met in grade school and recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Kendra Brewer began working at the Wilkins’ Shoe Center in 1990, and she and her husband bought the store 15 years later. Both said they viewed the change as more of a transition than a purchase, and they have tried to honor the Wilkins family name in the way they operate the store.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Wilkins’ Shoe Center, and Kendra Brewer said they will probably commemorate that milestone in September. “We’re going to celebrate with our employees,” she said. “They’re the reason we exist.”
Many of those employees have been with the store for decades, and their experience plays a key role in the Brewers’ commitment to customer service. Some have retired after 35, 42 and even 50 years working at the Wilkins’ Shoe Center.
Like their predecessors, the Brewer family is committed to maintaining the store’s presence in downtown Winchester for many years to come.
Phil and Kendra’s two sons are both involved in the business. Aaron Brewer works on the marketing and branding side of the operation while Madison Brewer, who is currently attending Lord Fairfax Community College, hopes to take over the store someday when, or if, his parents retire.
According to Phil, the Wilkins’ Shoe Center often begins serving customers at a very young age, when they’re first learning to walk. “If we can serve a customer that age,” he said, “we believe we have a customer for life.” He recently spoke with a family that said they’ve been coming to the store for four generations.
The Brewers’ business philosophy can be summed up in one simple statement: “Service is more important than shoes.” Phil said he doesn’t ever want a customer to have to wait on himself or herself.
That’s where the experienced staff comes into the picture, providing custom fittings so customers come away with the shoe they’re looking for in the size they need. For many customers, the Wilkins’ Shoe Center is a destination store.
Many regularly come from 50 or 60 miles away to make their selections from the nearly 30,000 pairs of shoes in stock. Some people visit the store for the fi rst time while passing through Winchester on vacation, and they return year after year to stock up on shoes.
For those who can’t make it back to Winchester on a regular basis, the store will ship to customers who reside outside the area.
The store’s location in Old Town Winchester doesn’t hurt. “People like to shop, go out to eat and go to museums,” Phil Brewer said. “It’s a great place to come.”
The Wilkins’ Shoe Center enjoys numerous partnerships with schools throughout the four-state area and helps outfit several fire departments and police agencies as well. “We’re just a community service store,” Phil Brewer said.
In 2005, while the store was transitioning from Jimmy Wilkins to the Brewers, the Wilkins’ Shoe Center was recognized by the Virginia Retail Merchants Association with the prestigious Virginia’s Retailer of the Year award, which includes all types and categories of retail businesses. Earlier this year, the store was voted best shoe store in the region in another magazine’s “Best of 2017” edition.
The Wilkins’ Shoe Center also holds the distinction of being the oldest member of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber of Commerce.
And no other shoe store in all of Virginia has a longer-running relationship with Nike than Wilkins, which first started carrying shoes from the Oregon-based company in the late 1960s.
At that time, Nike was not well-known and, according to Phil Brewer, it offered a very limited selection. But, as Nike grew, its bond with the Wilkins’ Shoe Center strengthened. By 1977, the store had become a regional team dealer for Nike, a distinction that continues to this day.
“We’re very thankful to represent their line,” Phil said.
Overall, the Wilkins’ Shoe Center carries close to 100 brands of shoes, sneakers and industrial footwear. Phil Brewer said he’s proud of the fact that many of those brands are still American-made.
Phil and Kendra haven’t lost sight of how their store was fortunate to bring so many top brands on board. “We have them because (the Wilkins family) worked so hard to get them,” Kendra said.
“If it’s comfortable and it’s quality, that’s what builds a brand,” Phil added.
Visitors to the store will find more than just shoes in its 6,000 square feet of retail space. The Wilkins’ Shoe Center carries socks of all types along with cheerleading accessories, purses, wallets, umbrellas, shoe care accessories and a complete line of Capezio dance footwear and accessories like tights, leotards, skirts and toe and heel taps.
The store is also a popular destination looking for shoes in hard-to-find sizes. Currently, Wilkins carries men’s sizes 5 to 18 and women’s sizes 4 to 14, from slim to extra wide. If the store doesn’t have your size, they can usually order it; according to Kendra Brewer, Wilkins recently sold a size 24E New Balance shoe.
While many “mom and pop” retailers have fought a losing battle with big box retailers in recent years, the Wilkins’ Shoe Center has continued to thrive and has actually seen an influx of business as many of the larger stores have struggled or closed.
“Our biggest competitor is still the Internet,” Kendra Brewer said. The Wilkins’ Shoe Center’s commitment to customer service and their owners’ willingness to venture out into the community to meet with clients may seem reminiscent of a bygone era. But, Phil Brewer said, the store has changed with the times, adapting as dress codes have become more casual in recent years.
According to Phil, several people have asked if he and his wife have any plans to expand their store or, perhaps, open another location. The answer to both questions is “no.” “We want to keep on doing what we’re doing,” he said, “stay here and grow our business that way.”
For 70 years, the knowledge and experience of the staff at the Wilkins’ Shoe Center has played a key role in the store’s success, and the Brewers expect that to continue.
“I can do everything right,” Phil said, “but if we don’t have good employees, we can’t be successful.” The Wilkins’ Shoe Center is located at 7 S. Loudoun St., Winchester. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. It is closed on Sundays.
For more information, call 540-667- 5600 or, toll-free, 888-737-5967, or visit wilkinsshoe.com.