AUBURN, Maine — Call it the schmutz test.
Take off a shoe. Pull out the insert and look at its tip.
“Look for the schmutz,” Harvey White said, slipping off his own shoe and sliding out the inlay. He pointed to a line of sock lint that had collected on the insert between the shoe’s toe and his actual toe.
“If you’re right at the very end, then you’re at the end of the shoe,” he said. “It’s probably too small.”
After 37 years as shoe seller, a shoe-store manager and a board-certified pedorthist, he has crafted a career helping people find shoes that fit. He currently sells shoes at Lamey Wellehan in Auburn.
“Statistics say that over 80 percent of people are wearing shoes that are too small,” he said. People with poorly fitting shoes can develop knee problems and backaches. Their toes can curl up.
It’s a problem that seems to worsen as more stores save money by leaving buyers to fend for themselves among the stacks of shoeboxes. And some simply resist changing their size, he said.
“People come in all the time and say, ‘I’ve always worn that size,’” he said. Often, they’re wrong. “How many people wear the same size shirt when they’re 40 that they wore when they were in high school?
“You’re used to cramming your foot in and saying, ‘the shoe will stretch,’” he said. “Whereas, if you had a shirt and you can’t raise your arms over your head, you’re going to get a bigger shirt.
“I try to help folks,” the 60-year-old Lisbon native said, chatting quietly in an office above the Auburn store.
He’s been selling shoes since he was 23.
He wanted a retail job that also meant he got to talk with people. He started work on May 8, 1975.
“I liked that end of retail better than working in a clothing store, where you stand around and fold clothes all day long,” he said. “We actually got to move around. You got to talk to customers. Put shoes on customers. Fit people. Fit kids. There’s just a lot of socializing.”
For the first 20 years of his career, he worked for Thom McAn. He managed stores and sold lots of shoes.
“It used to be that everybody has a dress shoe, a casual shoe and a sneaker,” he said. That’s changed. “Nowadays, a lot of people have just one shoe, particularly kids.”
Three months after the 1995 closure of his store in the Auburn Mall, he went to work at Lamey Wellehan.
He seems content helping, helping them find their correct size with one of the steel, slide-rule-like foot measuring tools known as a Brannock device.
He spends 30 minutes with the average customer, finding their size and finding the right shoe.
“They like to talk. We like to talk. It works pretty good,” he said.
Children are among his favorite subjects.
Once, he fitted a child who toddled away as his family gasped.
“The kid walked over to his grandmother, he said. “I didn’t think anything of it, but it was the first time he had walked by himself.”
“The parents and the grandparents were all like, ‘I knew that when we got him good shoes he would be able to walk,’” he said.