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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Uyeda Shoe Store thrives on devotion to customers

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Claire Takashima, owner of Uyeda Shoe Store, relies on referrals and word of mouth to keep the nearly 100-year-old business running.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Store owner Claire Takashima recently signed a lease that will keep the company in business through its 100th anniversary.

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Number of employees: Owner Claire Takashima, assisted by her son, sister, nephew, husband whoever has the day off from school or work.

How long in business: 95 years

Describe your business: "I try to marry comfort shoes with a little bit of style. It's for people who usually have a foot issue. I get referrals from foot doctors and word of mouth. I don't do any advertising."

Work philosophy: "You really need to enjoy what you're doing. Keep improving your products and how you can service your customers ."

Business survival tip: "I think I survived because I really appreciate my customers. If you do your best for your customers, you'll get the best customers."

Fun fact: Takashima has been known to balance as many as 15 boxes in one hand while she stocks shelves with the other hand.

Find it: University Square, 2615 S. King St. Suite 106, Honolulu, HI 96826. Open Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday. 941-1331.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Uyeda Shoe Store owner Claire Takashima works with customers to ensure the best fit on shoes like the popular Vibram FiveFinger, a recent addition to the store's offerings.

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Claire Takashima recently renewed the lease on her family's shoe store for five more years long enough for Uyeda Shoe Store to celebrate 100 years in business.

Takashima's grandfather, Saijiro Uyeda started Uyeda Shoe Store in 1915 on Fort Street. Her father moved the shop to Pālama and then to University Square, where she's been in charge since 1981.

The small store carries an eclectic mix, from some very sensible-looking shoes to fun, exotic and even somewhat strange foot-wear. Many times, her customers search for that elusive combination: "It's comfortable but it's cute."

Shoes have changed over the years but the family's reputation for service has remained strong, so much so that Takashima doesn't need to advertise. And the average customer purchase hovers around $100.

"We've only been in this location for 53 years," Takashima said.

Takashima, 55, relies on return visitors, word of mouth and referrals from foot doctors. She is friendly, helpful and knowledgeable but candid with customers about what will work best for them.

"My customers are almost like my friends. I've been putting some of them in shoes for 25 years," she said.

"You have to be flexible and change with the times," she said.

She's always on the lookout for new trends in cute, comfortable footwear.

Recently that has meant stocking the Vibram FiveFinger shoes that look like urban tabi.

Runners, surfers and people who have back problems swear by the flexible shoes that fit like gloves. Takashima said they strengthen the feet by mimicking walking barefoot while offering some protection from the perils of modern-day life.

Not only does she research the shoes she carries, she also will further customize them to improve and refine the fit.

"I stretch it, and pad it, and pound it," she said. "I kind of tweak the shoes for my customers."

Many of her customers say that finding the right shoe changed their lives by taking pain out of their daily steps. "My job is to find the right shoe for them."

Takashima compares buying shoes to getting married. "When you take it home, you find out all the faults."

So, she tells customers to come back if something's not right and she can help. "I want it to be absolutely comfortable."

When she was 5 years old, she asked her dad, "When I grow up, can I take over your shoe store?" She and her three siblings all helped out at the store but worked at other jobs but she kept coming back.

She recalls the family eating in shifts and bringing dinner to her dad, since for many years he used to keep the store open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but closed on Sundays.

Looking back on 29 years in the store, she feels fortunate to have spent so much time with her parents, both as family and as co-workers.

Takashima worked at Liberty House, first as a college job, then full time selling shoes.

When her father decided to retire in 1981 she took over, although her mother kept coming in to help until two years ago when she was 91.

There's a little sign in the crowded window display: "Everything I know about shoes and shopping, I learned from my mother."

Takashima doesn't know yet if the next generation will have her passion for footwear, but she's happy to know that she'll be in business through the 100-year mark.

One of Takashima's early memories of the importance of the store in their family was as a determined 3-year-old living in Mānoa. She thought her mother had forgotten to take her along to the store as promised while she was playing in a neighbor's yard and saw the car pass by.

"I thought she left me, so I started walking to the store by myself," she said. Tired and confused, young Claire showed up at the store and realized her mother wasn't there and that she might be in big trouble.

Her worried mother was relieved she was safe. "It was a good thing that in those days there wasn't much traffic," Takashima said.

She shakes her head over that story: "That's like a premonition that I'm somehow drawn to this place."