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For 35 years, Birkenstock lovers nationwide have sent worn-down shoes to this Kansas cobblery

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

Mick Ranney started selling and repairing Birkenstocks in Lawrence, Kansas, decades ago. The brand's popularity has ebbed and flowed — although its current wave of fashion cred is proving more enduring than any before. Throughout it all, Ranney has stayed a "true believer" in shoes worth fixing.

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For anyone who's spent time in Lawrence, Kansas, a big yellow awning with a giant footprint serves as an unofficial landmark of sorts. Heading north on Massachusetts Street after taking the Lawrence exit from K-10, the overhang essentially functions as a "welcome to downtown" sign, marking the exact spot where the lively strip of retail and restaurants begins.

The shoe store below, Footprints, specializes in Birkenstock sales and repairs, helping to cement the town's identity as "the Berkeley of Kansas."

But few have entered the repair shop out back, where Birkenstocks mailed from anywhere with a U.S. zip code — including Guam — await personal attention. Hidden from view, this workshop is a sacred space.

Mick Ranney, the owner of Footprints, built it accordingly. "Our repair shop is built in the shape of a church," says Ranney, clad in socks and sandals.

Ranney escorts me into the quaint little shed, where wooden cobbler's tools hang above a clean work table, Birkenstocks stacked neatly but precariously on just about every other surface.

He picks up one leather-strapped comfort shoe after another. "People have relationships with these guys," Ranney says, holding a dark blue closed-toe mule with a heel strap. "This one belongs to a pastry chef, so it has a special super-grip sole on it."

He grabs a more familiar-looking model with brown leather straps.

"This is a discontinued shoe from 15 or 20 years ago," Ranney tells me. "It had a little bit higher arch than the standard Birkenstock. They've discontinued this footbed, but it's the favorite footbed of this customer. They can't buy another one. So the only way they're gonna get the support that they want and need from this is to have it repaired."

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

People send their shoes to Ranney rather than buying new ones — sometimes, paying more for repairs than they might for a replacement pair. And that's saying a lot: The most basic Birkenstock model, the Arizona, will run you in the range of $100-$135, depending on the choice of leather.

Repairing shoes keeps junk out of landfills. But almost as importantly, Birkenstocks mold to the shape of the wearer's foot over time (and after some painful breaking-in).

Die-hard fans don't necessarily relish starting from scratch with a new pair. The aesthetic of clean, un-scuffed new shoes straight out of the box is anathema to old-school Birkenstock chic, if such a thing can be said to exist.

Birkenstocks have had time to earn this kind of against-all-odds devotion. The style dates back to 1774, when German cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock came up with the novel idea of making "fitness sandals" to promote a natural gait. It was his great-great grandson Konrad who came up with the idea of flexible footbeds in 1896, giving rise, pretty much, to Birkenstocks as we know them today — even 126 years later.

It's no surprise people get so attached to their personal pairs.

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

"We have a customer, she's not local, she's a mail-order customer, and she bought her first pair on her way to Woodstock," Ranney says. "She's rather old now. And she sent us her shoes to be re-soled not the first time but probably the seventh or eighth time. And the footbed was all rotted. So we transferred her straps to a new footbed so we could start all over. Everything was gonna be new except the straps and the buckles."

What the customer didn't anticipate, though, was that Ranney might clean the leather straps, which arrived in Lawrence a dark brown. When the straps returned to her the color of light cocoa, the customer got upset.

Ranney doesn't roll his eyes at the memory, though. He totally gets it.

"There's something kind of unique about wearing a pair of Birkenstocks or your favorite shirt or whatever," he says. "After you wear it for a long time, you get this connection with it that is kind of personal and it has a value beyond normal reason."

He tells a similar story about a nun who wore her Birkenstocks to the Holy Land. The significance of that memory carried so much meaning that her desire was close to religious, prayerful: to extend the shoe's life indefinitely.

That's a lot of love for any shoe, and especially one dismissed for so long as ugly. Although, that reputation has clearly been vindicated of late.

The Birkenstock revival, which began around 2014, may now have reached a point of such ubiquity as to require no evidence. But journalistic documentation of the phenomenon is plentiful, from celebrity Birkenstock-styling image boards published by fashion magazines to Gonzo-style guides to breaking them in by respected and well-read news outlets.

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

Another approach? Just looking around. Locally, Ranney says, University of Kansas professors have always been big supporters of Footprints.

But in the last four to five years, students have been showing up in significant numbers in his retail space — and they're not just buying for the health benefits. For the first time in Ranney's experience, trendy young people want Birkenstocks for the look.

"It's definitely expanded from just the Baby Boom generation that's been our core customer base for a long time," he says. "Thankfully it's expanded."

Nearly four decades in business is wildly unheard of for an independent retail shop in a single location, and Ranney's start would not have predicted his eventual status as a footwear legend.

He actually began selling bicycles, not Birkenstocks. And the sandal takeover didn't occur all at once; it happened gradually in the early 1980s. Ranney's then-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend sold Birkenstocks in Connecticut.

Ranney thought that seemed like a good gig, so he put a few sandals out for sale alongside the bikes. Why not, he figured.

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

From a profit standpoint, the results were striking: Birkenstocks > bicycles.

"On a big box of a bicycle this big," Ranney says, stretching one arm out as far as he can in one direction and extending a leg the other way, "we would make as much profit as we would out of a Birkenstock box this big."

Here, he stands upright again and holds two index fingers about a foot apart. "And we didn't have to assemble the Birkenstock. You had to assemble the bike."

Back in the '80s, Birkenstocks were still niche, so Ranney deliberately cultivated a national consumer base by advertising repair service. That calculated move is still paying off.

"We would advertise in Mother Jones magazine, all sorts of more left-of-center publications," Ranney says. "Birkenstocks tend to be a more liberal sort of footwear."

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

Back then, Birkenstocks cost $48, and Ranney charged $24 for repairs — nowhere close to compensating the time required for the task, but rewarding Footprints in other ways.

It's the part of his job that Ranney loves most. He sees it as a way to help people solve problems.

"I never anticipated I would do this for 35 years or so, but I enjoy our customers. It doesn't seem like I go to work in the morning," Ranney marvels. "I just go and socialize with people and help 'em out and we make enough sales that I'm comfortable."

Every inch of the two-room retail space at Footprints is in some way a reflection of Mick Ranney, Birkenstock lore or Kansas pride. All the walls double as murals.

In the front room, customers walk among giant painted cornstalks and wheat fields in the style of John Steuart Curry, a Kansas painter whose work famously adorns the state capitol rotunda in Topeka.

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

In the adjoining space, one stumbles upon a more unexpected dinosaur theme — or, actually, a Birkesaur.

"We have a fanciful Birkesaurus there," Ranney says, "which is a dinosaur with the cranium of a Birkenstock." To the best of Ranney's recollection, this fanciful prehistoric species originated in a dream he had.

With Birkenstock sales booming, Ranney doesn't need to attract new customers like he once did. So the usefulness of the repair shop — for the business — is dubious. But Ranney still receives shoes in the mail from customers who have sent them here, out of habit, for three decades or more.

He gets boxes shipped from their children, too — his second-generation customers.

"I've always thought it was kind of the heart of our store," Ranney says with conviction. "We are true believers. And we're gonna maintain that shoe as long as you want 'em to be maintained."

Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3

Of course, Ranney is aging right alongside his clientele. It took one serious bout of carpal tunnel to show him that non-stop repairs simply would not be feasible. Similar shops across the country have already stopped doing repairs altogether.

But not this one.

"Since I'm getting older, a question that a lot of customers ask, like, 'Have you found your replacement? I mean, what's gonna happen when you, uh, when you're not doing this?'" Ranney admits. "And I don't know. As long as I enjoy doing it, I'm happy doing it, as long as I'm healthy? I'll probably keep doing it."

I think, when Ranney says this, that I finally understand the Birkesaurus on the wall. A one-of-a-kind creature hanging out, doing his own thing, smiling beyond his peers' extinction — not in ignorant bliss, but in knowing gratitude.

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