About 100 years ago, an immigrant from Lebanon made his way from Ellis Island to Jefferson City. He knew very little English, but that didn’t stop him from starting a shoe repair business that eventually became the American Shoe Store. If he had been able to see into the future, he would never have believed what he had accomplished by making the difficult journey to a new country. The shoe store he started in 1919 would provide a living and way of life for four generations of his family.
American Shoe is a living legacy of a family business, still growing, still an important part of the mid-Missouri community, with stores in Jefferson City and Columbia. Ann Slay, who owns the two stores with her sister, Sara Quinn, and Sara’s husband, is the granddaughter of Elias Thomas, the Lebanese immigrant whose American dream has taken root in mid-Missouri. Slay can be found most days at one or both of the stores. Although she’s of an age where she could retire if she wanted, she most definitely isn’t about to walk away from the business anytime soon. “I love what I do. I love, love, love, love every minute of it,” she says.
That’s not to say that she isn’t delighted to see her daughters and nephews working at the store and learning how the business operates. “Now, several of our children (who are in their 30s and 40s) are starting to take over, and we call this our fourth generation,” Slay says. Then laughing, she adds, “Whenever we don’t want to do anything, my sister and I will say ‘Check with the next generation,’ and it works!”
Like her father before her, Slay grew up in the business. “I learned it through osmosis,” she says. Although she was the owners’ daughter, her parents made sure that her status didn’t stop her from learning good work habits and carrying them on throughout her career. “We were always expected to have a job in high school, and if we decided to work in the store, then, by God, we had better work and be there when scheduled,” she says.
In 1975, the family bought storefront real estate in Columbia, and by 1976 had opened their second store on Broadway. Ann and Sara now make Columbia their home, but commute to their corporate office and store in Jefferson City regularly. In addition to competition from other local shoe stores, American Shoe had to learn how to market against the chain stores and the Internet. “Years ago, we decided we had to do things differently in our business. Chain stores and Internet stores don’t greet customers, don’t talk with them, don’t measure their feet or try to keep track of what they purchased in the past,” Slay says.
American Shoe also differentiated itself by offering different styles than the chain and discount stores. Slay is confident that Internet sites are a poor substitute for the actual experience of walking into a shoe store and being treated like a human.
American Shoe will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. While thinking about that celebration of the past, Slay is busy with the everyday demands of running a business and preparing for the future when the fourth generation will take over. She isn’t sure exactly what they’ll do — whether they’ll expand to other cities or maintain their focus in mid-Missouri. But one thing she does know: Elias Thomas would be proud of what he and his family have accomplished.