Saturday #136: Finding Merrell (Part II)


My earliest memory of shopping for shoes is from a Saturday morning in the late summer of 1970. It was time to start thinking about back-to-school shoes so my mom took me to Lehman’s and Weldon’s, the two competing shoe stores on Main Street in my hometown. Of course I would have tried on shoes in a shoe store long before I was eight, but that’s my earliest memory of the process and I know precisely why I remember it like it was this morning.  I wanted a specific brand of shoes and “brands” weren’t a big thing in small town Ontario, circa 1970.  

The Stouffville Co-Op was the place to buy rubber boots (and if they didn’t have your size your mom would stuff crinkled up newspaper into the toe). No-name sneakers were a dime a dozen at the Sales Barn and Lehman’s and Weldon’s had the types of shoes a kid would be forced to wear to Sunday School, but do you think they had what I wanted?  In fact, needed? The object of my desire was a pair of Buster Browns – the ones with the secret agent’s insignia embossed on the toe and a compass embedded in the heel. 

My mom had a hard time finding shoes for her size-11 feet so Mr. Weldon’s suggestion that we try the ‘massive’ Woolworth’s in Markham was a convenient excuse to go shopping in the next town. “To the Buick, Mike.”

The clerk in the shoe department at Woolworth’s was probably a high school student but to me he seemed like a ‘grown up’ and he was the epitome of cool in his purple bell bottom pants and knitted tank top that he wore oven a polyester shirt with a collar that would be downright dangerous on windy days. I also recall what he said when I breathlessly described the shoes that I wanted. Nay, needed. “Well, we have shoes, and we have compasses over in sporting goods, but shoes with a compass in the heel? That’s just bananas, man.” I took it hard.

There was no use heading to the big department stores in Toronto as we had already checked the Eaton’s and Simpson’s Fall catalogues and Buster Browns were simply not listed. I was thoroughly dejected when we dropped in on my mom’s cousin before leaving Markham. It was Joyce Sine–a dead-ringer for comedian Joanne Worley–who suggested that we try Sayvette at Yonge and Steeles. “They have everything, Helen, absolutely everything… over two floors… with an escalator!”  

Unfortunately Sayvette did not stock everything, and neither did the S. S. Kresge store on the opposite corner. Consumers Distributing in Richmond Hill had great prices but they didn’t carry shoes. One of my mom’s favourite stores, Pantino, was nearby but they only carried a small selection of ladies shoes. But there was still hope! As we were walking out of Pantino my mom met another woman from our town. Besides being the only golfer in history to have won the Australian, British, Canadian and U.S. Women’s Amateurs, Marlene Stewart-Streit was a pretty savvy shopper! She was sure that Brown’s Shoes on Bloor Street in Toronto would carry Buster Browns.  I wanted to believe her and I suspect my mom was happy for an excuse to check out the big city selection of extra-wide shoes for women so it wasn’t long before the Buick was heading south on Yonge.

To move this little tale along let me just say that we were back in Stouffville in time for dinner and I was wearing Buster Browns. The fact that you had to take the shoes off and peel back a leather flap in the heel to see the compass wasn’t an issue. They were cool and I was sure I’d be the only kid in Miss Clendenning’s class to have a pair.  

I knew that Andy Redshaw would be heading back to school in suede desert boots with a crepe soul. Crepe? Yuck. I had heard through the grapevine that Cory Drolet’s grandmother in Europe had sent him a pair Adidas Gazelles, and while undoubtedly new and cool, I wondered what good they’d be if a kid got lost in the new Ponderosa subdivision on the edge of town or on a hike through Harper’s bush? Would three diagonal stripes help you find your way home? No sir! You needed a compass and only Buster Browns had a compass in the heel. And I had a pair!

Fast forward 46 years and I’m only slightly less picky about my shoes. I currently have a pair of flip flops which I purchased in India for about a buck. They served me well on the beaches of Goa but they aren’t much good in Istanbul in February. I also have a pair of Asics, which I love, but they’re not waterproof and that might be an issue when I start walking the Via de la Plata in mid-March. What I need is a pair of Merrell hiking boots.

I bought my first (and to date only) pair of Merrells in the Spring of 2012 when I was planning a summer trip to Spain. I had to cancel that trip a few weeks before I was set to leave but I wore the Merrells on some long hikes around Toronto that summer and fall. I also wore them pretty much every day over the spring and fall of 2013. By the summer of 2014 when I was about to embark on my round-the-world trip I figured it was time to replace them. The guy running the footwear department at Mountain Equipment Co-Op asked why I was replacing a perfectly good pair of “well broken-in” boots. He had a point. I decided to wear them for the first half of my trip and replace them once I got to Europe in 2016.  

Those boots survived the alkaline dust of Burning Man and several long and wet hikes in Brazil’s Southern Pantanal. I wore them when I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand and when I climbed to the top of the Khorgo volcano in Mongolia. It rained every minute of a two day hike along the Great Wall in China but the GoreTex uppers kept my feet warm and dry. I literally leapt from slippery rock to slippery rock when I visited the Twelve Apostles in Australia and even the greasy back alleys of Beijing were no match for the slip resistant Vibram soles on my trusty Merrells. 

After hiking 900 kilometres from the south of France to the west coast of Spain, I stood on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Atlantic where most of the other pilgrims were burning their boots in celebration. I had a second pair of shoes to wear for the rest of the trip but I simply couldn’t bring myself to toss a good friend into the fire. I wore them back to Canada and on to Burning Man last fall. And I’d still be wearing them had I known I’d be someplace other than the south of India. 

If you read my account of Saturday #135 you’ll know where this is headed. I didn’t have any luck finding a pair of Merrells in Bangalore so that was my goal for Saturday #136 in Istanbul.  

Unfortunately there isn’t much of a story. I easily found a Sport City store opposite the Galata Bridge and just as their web site suggested, they had a good selection of Merrells. I tried on a few pairs before deciding that the lower cut hiking “shoe” was a better fit than the “boot” that has been redesigned since 2012.  

My new favourite shoes don’t have a compass in the heel and Cory Drolet or George Hoover or David Elson won’t be convinced to pay 10 cents for the privilege of wearing them at recess, but I love them just the same. Mike + Merrells forever!  

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