By Louie St. George III
Plenty has changed at Bear Shoe Works since Charles Bear opened the blue-collar business on Superior’s Tower Avenue in 1912 – when William H. Taft was getting ready to relinquish the White House to Woodrow Wilson.
Yet, walking through the front door is like stepping back in time. The smell of leather nips at your nostrils. Much of the original wood flooring remains. Back behind the counter, the space for repairing shoes is full of tools and other gadgets that look like they could have been used by Mr. Bear himself.
The nostalgia is thick here.
Heck, even the surnames of the owners have hardly deviated in the past 112 years.
Harry Bear eventually took over for his father, Charles. Harry ran the shop until he died in 1999, when Klaus Nieder bought the business. The third ownership change occurred on Dec. 1, 2023, when Klaus passed the torch to his son, Zeke Nieder.
Another holdover from eras past? A commitment to selling reliable products and performing quality work. The store’s shelves are lined with brands that are well-known for their durability – Timberland, Red Wing, Wolverine, Carolina.
“I’d rather sell fewer of a good product than more of a junk product,” Zeke says in a nod to that all-important word-of-mouth marketing.
“There’s something to be said for continuing the family business. To keep it going means a great deal to me.”
– Zeke Nieder – Co-Owner, Bear Shoe Works
Zeke, who grew up in Oulu and graduated from South Shore in 2015, is only 27. His excitement for Bear Shoe Works is palpable. It doesn’t hurt that he’s been a regular at the shop since about the time he started to walk. As he got older, Zeke worked there in the summer as well as on weekends during the school year.
Eventually, he left the family business and worked as a mechanic and then in construction. When Klaus was ready to retire late last year, Zeke was happy to assume the reins. He talked it over with his wife, Madisen, who had just given birth to their second child, Bennett, in August. She was easy to convince.
Madisen recalled their first conversation on the subject.
“He began with, ‘Now hear me out,’ which, as you can tell, he knew it would completely shock me,” Madisen says. “As we got to talking, and after much prayer, there was no doubt in our minds that this was the right move.”
She does a little bit of everything for Bear Shoe Works – social media, bookkeeping, replies to customer inquiries, tidies up the shop. Together, they make a heck of a team. Zeke especially likes repairing old shoes and other items that customers bring in. He calls it an art form, and one that is increasingly rare as people are more apt to simply toss their things in the trash rather than have them repaired.
As he spoke, Zeke showed off a purse and a gun holster he had recently refurbished. Both looked as good as new and meticulously cared for. The customers no doubt were delighted with the finished product, the attention to detail.
“It makes us different,” he says. “It separates us from Jeff Bezos and Amazon.”
Besides shoes and boots, the shop sells apparel like sweatshirts, jackets, gloves, choppers, belts, hats, socks and shoe accessories. Zeke is dabbling in his own boot oil, which features natural oils infused with pine. It’s used for conditioning and waterproofing.
Much like making the boot oil, taking over Bear Shoe Works has been a learn-on-the-fly undertaking. As Zeke says, he didn’t go to school for this. He had an idea of what to expect from his years of experience at the shop and from conversations with his dad. But he couldn’t fully appreciate the demands of being a business owner until he was the one making all the decisions, and until those decisions had a direct impact on his livelihood.
So far, so good. Zeke and Madisen have been intentional about avoiding significant changes, at least early on. The plan is to stay the course while looking for small improvements that can be made, keeping an eye on what works and what doesn’t. Zeke mentions the possibility of starting to sell athletic shoes as well as high-end hiking shoes. For the former, he specifically notes the Hoka brand, the massively soled and cushioned shoes with mass appeal.
“With footwear, you have to keep up,” Zeke says. “You can’t live in the past too much.”
At the same time, he and Madisen won’t rush into anything; after all, Bear Shoe Works’ recipe has proven successful for more than a century. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
Zeke exudes pride when talking about the shop, about learning from his dad. Klaus still stops by on occasion, and he’s not opposed to grabbing a vacuum and doing some cleaning.
Like it was for Klaus, it’s a labor of love for Zeke.
“There’s something to be said for continuing the family business,” Zeke says. “To keep it going means a great deal to me.”
On the Bear Shoe Works website, there’s a line saying “customers from across the country are welcome.” Indeed, Zeke says folks from far-flung places such as Florida, Alaska and Puerto Rico have sent him stuff to repair.
“This business has meant a great deal to those who have owned it, including Zeke’s dad. Now we feel very blessed to have the opportunity to own it.”
– Madisen Nieder – Co-Owner, Bear Shoe Works
Besides the Nieders, there is one other employee. Ryan Calore started at Bear Shoe Works in 1998, and he’s worked there consecutively for the past 17 years.
“He could run this place by himself,” Zeke says appreciatively.
Added Madisen: “He’s been our rock as we make this transition.”
As more retailers focus their attention on the internet and e-commerce, Bear Shoe Works is sticking to its roots. Items are sold on the shop’s website, but it’s not the focal point. You can’t get the full experience buying online.
“We’re pretty old-school here,” Zeke says. “We rely on people walking into our store. We don’t have a big online presence, so we want to take care of everyone who comes in.”
Zeke was speaking just after the shop closed on a weekday in early January. Excited to get home to his family, he didn’t have to go far. Zeke and Madisen, plus Bennett and their 3-year-old daughter Lydia, live in the apartment above the shop.
Zeke came back to Bear Shoe Works from his construction job in April 2023. Growing up, he always told his dad that he planned to own a business someday. They had no clue the business would be Bear Shoe Works. Now that he’s running the place, he’s surprised at how all-encompassing it can be. Even something as simple as watching TV can get the wheels turning. Zeke will see a local commercial and think, “Hey, we should reach out to that company and set up an account.” He’s never off the clock.
“Watching Zeke take over this business has been nothing short of amazing to see, even though it hasn’t been long,” Madisen says. “He is the hardest worker I know and always gets the job done. This business has meant a great deal to those who have owned it, including Zeke’s dad. Now we feel very blessed to have the opportunity to own it.”
Madisen, too, says she’s always aspired to own a business. She has had a few jobs, but none of them provided the sense of satisfaction that running Bear Shoe Works does. That’s a good thing; as Zeke says, “this is a lot more new to her than it is me.”
He’s relishing being back in the shop. Zeke has always enjoyed the time he’s spent at Bear Shoe Works, but it means just a little bit more now.
Who says you can’t go home again?
“Coming back to it, it’s like, ‘Wow, I really enjoy it’,” Zeke says. P.S.