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Stout’s carries on its basket tradition

Stout’s carries on its basket tradition
Fabulous Flyer system in use 75 years

By Dana Knight dana.knight@indystar.com   http://www.indystar.com/ Originally published: July 10, 2003 (no longer online at indystar)

PHOTO:  Stout’s Matt Edmunds works the pulley to send Julie Harden’s shoes up for inspection and wrapping using the stores vaunted vintage pulley system.
— Mpozi Mshale Tolbert / The Star

History of Stout’s

  • 1886: First Stout’s Shoes store was opened by Harry Stout on Massachusetts Avenue.
  • 1928: The Baldwin Flyer basket-and-pulley system is installed.
  • 1930s: Stout’s operates five Downtown locations.
  • 1940s: Founder Harry’s sons Sidney and Oliver, and grandson Harry, are running the stores.
  • Late 1940s: Four Downtown locations are closed, leaving only the Massachusetts Avenue store.
  • 1986: Carmel location opens. Stout’s celebrates 100-year anniversary.
  • 2002: Brownsburg location opens.
  • 2003: Stout’s celebrates 75th anniversary of Baldwin Flyer system. The store is believed to be the last U.S. retailer using it.

Stout’s Shoes is the kind of place where people say they got their first pair of shoes — even if they didn’t. Where old polish is stacked in slots on the wall. Where feet still are measured by salespeople. Where the walls down in the basement are crafted out of worn shipping boxes.

And on a day bustling with shoppers, it’s where the Baldwin Flyer still shines.

“On a busy day, all you hear is the swish- swish-swish-swish of the baskets going up and down,” says Brad Stout, co-owner of the 117-year-old store on Massachusetts Avenue Downtown. “It is a lot of fun to get them going back and forth.”

Stout’s Shoes this year marks 75 years of the pulley and crank system, called the Baldwin Flyer, that became outdated at least 50 years ago and is virtually extinct today.

It’s also a little twist of history that lures people back to the store.

For those unfamiliar, it works like this: A clerk takes the customer’s shoes to the counter. They are loaded into a basket with a worn leather cash box and pulleyed up a wire to a mezzanine where an employee, often Stout, checks for mates, makes change and wraps the box in brown paper, then shoots it back down.

Stout still isn’t sure exactly what the point of the Flyer was — or is. He figures his family purchased it in 1928 because it was being marketed as a labor-saving device.

“Labor-saving? I don’t know what they were doing beforehand,” says Stout, chuckling. “But I’ll never get rid of it. As long as I’m here, it will be here.”

But why, if the baskets slow the process, would Stout hang on?

“Because if you sit in that office up there, every single day you will see an adult come in with a child and point and say, ‘Look. That’s what I was talking about. There are the baskets,’ ” he says.

Stout’s is believed to be the last retailer in the nation that uses the antiquated checkout method of baskets and wires.

“It’s amazing,” said Sarah Lewis, a customer of Stout’s since the 1950s. “It was nice then and still is.”

History can be priceless in drawing consumers, and the pulley system is Stout’s brand distinction, says Richard Feinberg, a retailing professor at Purdue University and director of the Center for Customer-Driven Quality.

“How else are they going to compete?” he says. “You can get a Nike shoe in 50 other places probably cheaper and more convenient than Stout’s.” But at Stout’s you get the Baldwin Flyer.

“There is something quaint and distinctive about the pulley system,” Feinberg says. “It can be charming, and it can bring sales.”

It also brings people from around the country to see a system that its maker, J. L. Baldwin Conveyor Co., says now can be found in active use only at Stout’s Shoes. “They have a bunch in Hollywood,” says Baldwin owner Al Blume. And a company in Chicago still has one, but it’s just for show.

The Flyers are so rare that the Smithsonian Institution contacted Blume, based in Rosemont, Ill., asking for one to put on display. Blume said he didn’t have one to spare for free, and he says the Smithsonian didn’t want to pay for it.

Needless to say, when Stout’s opened its Carmel and Brownsburg locations it did so without the Baldwin Flyer.

Blume concedes the system is antiquated now, but can explain exactly why the Baldwin Flyer was important when it came on the market in 1900.

It was sold mostly to dry goods stores, whose owners didn’t necessarily trust the clerks. They had no way of knowing whether the clerks were giving friends good deals or pilfering items for themselves because there were no receipts.

Sending the goods and the cash to a central and trustworthy cashier, or the owners themselves, was a good way to track the merchandise and the money.

“Then cash registers came along and eliminated everything,” says Blume.

The Baldwin Flyer became virtually useless, though 16-year-old Brady Stout, a fifth-generation Stout’s worker, insists it’s helpful.

“When it’s busy, it’s actually very effective,” he says.

The employees don’t have to run upstairs (where the cash is kept) to make an exchange, and they don’t have to go up there (where the brown paper is kept) to wrap the shoes. Plus, he says, “We get people in here all the time asking about the baskets.”

Not all customers have to use the system. If someone wants to get in and out quickly, he or she can write a check or use a credit card downstairs.

That’s usually what Bill Gesink, a Stout’s regular, does. But he appreciates the value of the Baldwin Flyer. “It’s some history,” he said.

There’s another twist of history at Stout’s that Brad Stout doesn’t want to be forgotten, a twist that taught him an important lesson — about keeping things like the Baldwin Flyer.

Decades ago, a green parrot was kept in the children’s department at Stout’s. Fifteen to 20 years after its death, customers continued asking where the parrot was.

That’s what would happen if Stout’s did away with the Flyer.

So Stout keeps the baskets, and seven years ago brought back a green parrot, named Ripley.

“There are many customers who don’t know the bird was ever gone,” says Stout. “He’s like the baskets. It’s all part of the lure of the store.”

Call Star reporter Dana Knight at 1-317-444-6012.