BELFAST, Maine — The big February sale at Colburn Shoe Store in downtown Belfast brings in hundreds of customers annually from miles around to get half-price shoes. Some brave the lines and the cold weather because they enjoy the thrill of scoring a good deal. But others do it because they can’t otherwise afford to pay full price.
“For some of the people at that sale, I believe it is their opportunity that year to get quality shoes,” said Colby Horne, the fifth-generation owner of the store.
And that gave him an idea.
What if the 188-year-old shoe store, which proudly calls itself the oldest of its kind in America, could do something else to help customers afford new shoes year-round?
And that’s why Horne decided to create a “pay-what-you-can” rack, located in the basement of the store. It features shoes for men, women and children, but instead of asking shoppers to pay retail price, there’s a donation box.
“We understand tough times hit everyone,” Horne wrote on the store’s Facebook page this week to introduce the rack. “I will do my best to keep it stocked with stuff for men, women and kids. Leave nothing, or leave 100 bucks — it’s up to you. Hopefully this helps some folks out.”
The news spread like wildfire. Just a few hours after he made the post, it had been shared more than 500 times. Customers started coming to check out the rack almost immediately. Some went home with new shoes — footwear for children is the most popular, so far — while others just came to donate to the cause.
“I’m quite overwhelmed right now,” Horne said. “My goal is to find a way to keep this going.”
He has a strategy for that: It may be because of their color, their style or their size, but there are always some shoes that linger in Colburn’s inventory, Horne said. Those pairs will end up on the special rack. On Tuesday, those included blue-and-orange Fila running shoes for men, women’s shoes made with memory foam and brightly-colored snow boots for children.
Sales from the rack are completely on the honor system.
“I thought the donations box is important,” Horne said. “There could be that element of embarrassment. If you leave nothing, that’s fine, too.”
On the way out of the store, people are simply asked to let an employee know they are taking a pair of shoes from the rack.
“We fully expect people to be 100 percent honest with us, and, eventually, to pay it forward,” Horne said.
Part of his inspiration came from the Honor System Garage, an Ellsworth business that sells cheesecake, appropriately enough, using the honor system.
“Take care of your neighbors, and basically your neighbors will take care of you,” he said. “It’s a real simple concept that works so well in a small community like Belfast.”