The longer you’ve been in Portland, the more likely it is you’ve heard of Roy’s Shoe Shop on Stevens Avenue.
The family-run shoe repair shop will mark 100 years in business next year; 41 of those years have been part of 56-year-old owner Dan Lentz’s life.
Lentz started saving customers’ soles at 14, working under the wing of his father Steve, before being joined by his son Ryan and daughter Liz.
The trio kept the almost century-old business going smoothly as ever through the pandemic, and there’s no expectation of slowing down.
“I’ve been here eight years, (and) it seems like every year is busier than the one before,” Ryan said last week.
Roy’s is definitely a survivor. Nationally, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that according to the Shoe Service Institute of America, the number of shoe repair shops declined from 100,000 in the 1930s to 15,000 in 1997 to about 5,000 in 2019. Three remain in Maine – one of which, Mike’s Shoe Shop in Scarborough, is owned and operated by Dan’s brother.
Consistency is one of the keys to the shop’s success: Roy’s has been on the same street since it opened, with its first storefront in the old Lyric Theater building. It moved to 500 Stevens Ave. in 1941, and has kept the same four digits of its phone number (1612) since the beginning.
A combination of family ties and a generational customer base has also kept Roy’s going. The story includes two families, both with children who carried on their fathers’ legacy.
The business was opened in 1923 by George Roy Sr., who passed the business on to his son about 25 years later.
Steve Lentz came on board in 1956 when he was living around the corner on Richardson Street – “He grew up in the area, probably got his shoes here,” Dan Lentz said – and ended up buying the building 25 years later, opening the door for Dan and Mike to work alongside him.
“When my dad and I were running this, and my kids were young, (it was) some of the best years of my life,” Lentz said. “But it didn’t end there, because now they work here with me.”
Steve retired in 2010, leaving Lentz to operate the business alone. It meant long days and no breaks, unless he wanted to close the doors.
The next step in the legacy just came naturally, Ryan recalled: “I said one morning, I wish I could just work with you dad, and he was like, ‘you can, you can do that.’”
Ryan, 29, has now been working with his dad for about eight years. Liz, 22, followed after she graduated from high school.
After focusing a lot on trade work in school, she jumped into the business naturally and is even trying her hand at shoemaking, a self-teaching process she and her father are taking up together.
The Lentzes aren’t the only thing generational about Roy’s; it’s a huge portion of the customer base too, Liz said. Returning customers often bring in their kids or grandkids, she said, and tell the story of how they had their shoes fitted at Roy’s when they were young.
“I get that story almost every day,” Ryan said. Some are so in tune with the shop’s past that they ask if Roy’s still sells shoes, which it hasn’t since the late 1980s.
In addition to the regulars, Liz said customers include young adults hoping to preserve their nice shoes, although she admitted she wishes there was more of a Gen-Z crowd that came into the shop.
Roy’s shop was closed for four months at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop its business. The Lentzes maintained a drop-off and pick-up box until the phone rang off the hook and the voicemail box was full. Halfway through the closure, Lentz said, they started using an answering service.
“You mean Aunt Joanne?” Ryan interjected. She was a huge help during the pandemic, Dan said, organizing the work and calls that came in leading up to reopening in July 2020.
The back room at Roy’s consists of a complicated array of shoes, components, and equipment. Some of the most common repairs include ladies’ heels and soles, and men’s work boots and sandals. And Ryan also repairs bags, belts, suitcases – you name it.
“When I first came in here, someone brought in an antique, leather pig,” he said. “It was very interesting.”
Going forward, Roy’s “mission,” in addition to becoming a better shoe repair business every day, is juggling the work on the inside, while renovating the old building on the outside, a new roof and front steps have already been completed.
Dan said the hope is to have the improvements done by 2023. And then, Liz added, maybe they’ll throw a party in the summer to celebrate a century in business.