Meet Your Merchant: Whether it’s belts, buckles or shoes, Grass Valley business man finds success
April 9, 2017
112 Mill St., Grass Valley
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays.
When Richard Charnley turned 18, he left the Detroit suburb of his childhood and hitchhiked to California. A man picked him up and said he was going somewhere Charnley had never heard of — a place called "Yosemite."
He arrived at night, completely unaware of his surroundings. When he woke up, he couldn't believe his eyes. He stayed for three months before exploring the rest of California.
It was the early 70s, and Charnley eventually enrolled in community college in San Mateo and began working in a warehouse for $1.25 an hour. To augment his meager income, a street artist friend offered to teach Charnley how to make belts. Little did he know that it would change the course of his life.
"I sold belts for $8 and buckles for $4," said Charnley. "I made $3,000 at my first craft show. That was it — I quit college and began making belts and wallets."
Charnley eventually married, had children and moved his family to Grass Valley after visiting a craft show in Nevada County. His craft continued to serve him well for a full 23 years, until he started to become ill from chemicals used in leather dye. It was a disappointment, because he had always hoped to eventually learn the art of shoe making.
But in 1997, when Charnley learned that a longtime Grass Valley shoe store, Dave's Shoes, was closing, he jumped at the chance to open his own store, Empire Shoes, in the same location. The transition was so seamless that many customers didn't realize there was a new owner, said Charnley.
But soon the new inventory began to attract attention, as Charnley's emphasis was on premium shoes with a wide selection of comfortable styles for work or play.
Despite the likes of online giants such as Zappos or Amazon, he was able to carve out his own niche by becoming a "pedorthist" — a professional who is qualified to fit, adjust and make custom orthotics.
Before long, a wide range of people with foot issues began seeking Charnley out for his expertise, evaluations and complimentary fittings. He also began working with local podiatrists, many of whom would send their patients to Empire Shoes.
Five years ago, Charnley relocated his store from Brunswick Basin to Mill Street in downtown Grass Valley. While there has always been a solid base of longtime, loyal customers, Charnley said he definitely saw an uptick in "foot" traffic.
While making it a priority to stay abreast of the newest well-made comfortable shoes, Charnley carries such brands as Dankso, Merrell, Keen, Teva, Ecco Jambu, Pikolinos, Aetrex, SAS, Haflinger, Olukai, Naot, Acorn, and a number of top running shoe brands.
Accessories include purses, socks, shoe polish, laces, shoe care products, insoles, orthotics and more. A foot scanner at the front of the store can determine where a customer is putting weight on each foot, allowing for a more accurate shoe fitting.
Charnley said the most rewarding part about owning a shoe store for two full decades has most certainly been the people who come through the front door.
"I enjoy interacting with customers — we've got a shoe for everyone here," he said. "It feels good to know I'm selling something of good quality."
To contact Staff Writer, email Cory Fisher a Cory@theunion.com.
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