By SEAN ROWLEY
For the past 75 years, any Tahlequah resident who has needed a new pair of shoes has probably turned to the Felts family for the perfect fit.
Felts Shoes has been around longer than any other business in town, opening on Valentine’s Day in 1939. As much a venerable institution as the store is its manager, L.D. Jones.
“We’re certain we are the oldest business operating at the same location in Tahlequah,” said Jones, who has managed the store for the Felts family for 55 years. “There may be older businesses that have moved around or changed names, but we don’t know who they are.”
To celebrate its diamond anniversary, Felts Shoes will host an open house on Feb. 15 from 2-4 p.m. Refreshments will be served.
“We will be giving away a lot of prizes, including shoes, pens,” Jones said. “Anybody who wants to come down, there will be a lot going on.”
The store was opened by Clay Felts and his wife Kay. Jones believes he is only the third person to ever manage the store.
“I got out of the service in 1959 and interviewed with Mr. Felts in Tulsa,” Jones said. “I was just looking for any sort of job, and he was looking for a manager. He hired me. I’ve been with the store ever since, and can’t think of ever wanting to do anything else. I guess you’d have to say I like what I landed on.”
Jones now works for Felts’ son Doyle. Jones has wide latitude and can run the store “pretty much” as he sees fit.
“The store is actually leased to me,” he said. “I’ve been working under a one-year lease every year for about 40 years. Maybe there were a few years where we forgot to sign it. But that is the way it has been. I’ve made some mistakes in buying, but you can’t learn anything in retail unless you make some mistakes. You have to work through those.”
The success of Felts Shoes is not the result of complex number-crunching or creative advertising, but lies in the basic relationship between entrepreneur and customer.
“Finding the right shoes for our customers and treating them well is the whole thing,” Jones said. “We’d be out of business if we didn’t. We don’t have the traffic of big malls, where they can treat people how they want because the next day, there is more traffic. That isn’t true in our business. We are downtown and people have to make the trip to come here and see us. We depend on loyal customers and they have kept us in business for decades.”
Jones said it is also vital to employ quality people who put the customers’ interests first.
“We have to keep good help,” he said. “I can’t do all of this myself. At my age, I now only work part time, but I have a lot of good people helping me.”
Among the help is Drew, grandson of Clay Felts. Drew is usually present in the store if Jones is not.
“Drew grew up in this store and he does a great job,” Jones said. “We’re not sure when it will happen, and we haven’t discussed it, but most likely he will be the one who eventually runs Felts Shoes. I certainly won’t feel bad about leaving it to him.”
During his 55 years overseeing the store, Jones has watched a lot of downtown ventures come and go. He said there are more smaller stores along Muskogee Avenue than in years past.
“We’ve lost our department stores; that is something that has changed,” he said. “There has been a lot of change, and most of it for the better. A lot of these little stores we have downtown today are nice and neat and pretty and have an appeal. We think they help us stay here. Downtown has a very good atmosphere for merchants and shoppers right now.”
Inflation being what it is, Jones also remembers prices that seem impossible in 2014.
“I remember selling 50-cent tennis shoes,” he said. “When we saw the first pair of tennis shoes for $2.99, we thought that was outrageous - that could not happen. Now we sell pairs that cost as much as $170.”
Jones said the longevity of the store can be traced to its origins and the decision of Clay Felts.
“He was a good merchant, had an understanding of business, and picked a good location for the store,” Jones said. “He just happened to come through Tahlequah and this building was empty. I don’t know that when Clay Felts opened the doors he had any idea it would still be standing 75 years later, but he moved in, and it’s been good ever since.”