Culture

Farewell to Payless and its terrible, no good, very cheap, occasionally meaningful shoes

Why does the looming end of a discount shoe retailer make me so sad?
Culture

Farewell to Payless and its terrible, no good, very cheap, occasionally meaningful shoes

Why does the looming end of a discount shoe retailer make me so sad?

Apparently I’m not the only one who stopped shopping at Payless ShoeSource a long time ago. According to various media reports, people who need to buy cheap shoes are getting them online or from the abundant options fast fashion now provides, which is why the company will close all of its U.S. and Canada stores by the end of May (some international locations will remain open).

Saying goodbye to Payless is like bidding farewell to the whole post-WWII American shopping experience. The first location opened in 1956 as a low-priced, self-serve shoe store in Topeka, Kansas. By 1975, aided by recession and the growth of shopping malls, Payless was the largest family shoe chain in the U.S. It continued to grow exponentially through numerous acquisitions and mergers until the early 2000s, when competition from places like Target and Walmart started its slow decline.

After spending my youth in discount footwear, I decided sometime in the aughts that shoes were one thing I couldn’t afford to “save money” on, even if it hurt my wallet. I don’t actually know if my American-made resoleable boots have a lower cost-per-wear than the 10 pairs I could buy at Payless for the same amount. But I do know that the mental relief of not worrying if a strap is going to break, or if I remembered Band-aids to cover my blisters, is worth the extra cost to me. So the mixture of emotions I felt when I first saw the big yellow-and-red “Store Closing” signs in a Payless window caught me off guard. Why did I find myself… caring?

Payless, more than any other chain, perfectly encapsulates my love/hate relationship with consumer capitalism. Payless helped invent the voracious consumption machine — using a self-serve model that kept overhead and labor costs low, contracting with multiple suppliers and controlling distribution for quick style turnover, chasing cheaper production across the globe, and so on — that laid the groundwork for its own obsolescence, but it also catered to people capitalism usually leaves behind. It deserves a little extra attention before it goes away, not just because it’s been around for more than 60 years, but because those years saw the rise of a new stage of capitalism that the chain very much abetted. The ubiquitous, unassuming stores were a kind of training ground for this new economy, in which the notions of necessity and pleasure intertwined in ways that left us scrambling to keep up.

I grew up in a small Oregon town in the 1980s and early ’90s. In 1980, Americans thought the solution to a seemingly endless recession was an aging B-Movie cowboy with a message of unfettered capitalism and aggressive global expansion. Instead, across the country, traditionally “masculine” jobs (i.e. jobs that paid a living wage) disappeared, unions were stripped of power, and the “laissez-faire” policies of Reaganomics began a steady trend of downward mobility.

These larger economic shifts led to my father’s lay-off from the Forest Service and insecure employment for most of my adolescence. Sometimes, my mother’s job as a jury clerk supported our family of five. Payless (called “Volume” in the Pacific Northwest until the early ’90s, a holdover from when the parent company was Volume Distributors) was a godsend for my parents. It mostly replaced trips to a traditional shoe store, where a salesperson would measure my foot with that fascinating metal contraption and then duck behind a curtain to gather stacks of cardboard boxes, leaving us kids delighted and my mom betrayed by her checkbook. Instead, over the next decade we racked up hours roaming fluorescent lit aisles, inhaling the smell of off-gassing pleather.

Fake Keds were grudgingly tolerated, but being seen in a pair of Payless ProWings was to be socially cursed.

Payless helped me understand that I was poor. In our isolated, economically depressed town, that wasn’t immediately obvious, because a lot of us were. In the 1980s, displaying a brand name label was a matter of life and death. It was as if the worse the economy got, the more important it was to emblazon your status across your chest. My middle school was a cruel place where girls would sneak up behind you and grab the collar of your shirt to see if it was a “real” Esprit, or if you’d just sewed a tag onto the pocket of a knock-off (which I totally did). Fake Keds were grudgingly tolerated, but being seen in a pair of Payless ProWings was to be socially cursed.

For many people who grew up in the shadow of recession, memories of Payless are a literal combination of insult and injury. One hometown friend also saw the shoes as a “reminder of [her] class status.” Thinking back, she said, “I sort of felt about Payless how I felt about myself in middle school; having potential, almost cool, not quite enough.” Another childhood friend had a more visceral response. “When I was in middle school, most of my shoes came from there, and they almost always made my feet bleed. The backs of my heels probably still have scars,” she told me. I don’t know if real Keds were comfortable, because I never had any. But I too can still feel the way Payless knock-offs sliced into my ankles and rubbed my toes raw. (As it happens, Payless’s umbrella company would eventually come to own Keds.)

Of course, it wasn’t just my cash-strapped classmates who had an uneasy reliance on Payless. As Maggie Levantovskaya, a writer who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the early ’90s, told me, the shoes were part of her adjustment to life in San Francisco. “It was definitely something that I associated with being immigrants and not having money. Don't get me wrong, the shoes were a world better than anything we got in the Soviet Union, but it doesn't take long to pick up on class cues,” she said. In those days, anywhere you found a Payless, you found kids who knew they were getting subpar shoes, but also knew to appreciate them because they were better than not getting new shoes at all.

My perception of the store changed around the same time that I evolved into a sarcastic thrift store alterna-teen. In the ’90s, my peers and I wore used clothes as a rebellious middle finger to shallow consumerism, but thrift stores and Payless were how I discovered shopping just for fun. Before that, I got school clothes once a year and a couple new things for birthdays and holidays. We used layaway a lot. New shoes were an even rarer event — except for Payless, which kept getting cheaper.

The chain was a precursor to “fast fashion” production models perfected by Zara and H&M; a place that reminded us that even though job, housing, and healthcare options were shrinking, we could have more shoes! And every once in a while Payless offered up something that gave us a chance to match our appearance to an imagined idea of who we wanted to be. Once, in 11th grade, I found a pair of perfectly clunky black leather lug-soled extra-small men’s work shoes that fit perfectly. They got me as close to my longed-for “hippie-meets-grunge-meets-Ma Joad” look as I’d ever be without Fryes or Red Wings.

This speaks to what separates Payless from its fast-fashion and online usurpers: It welcomed oddballs. Xan Chacko, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland, told me about arriving in the U.S. from India “as an international student with size-12 feet.” Her favorite thing about Payless was the way all the styles and sizes were laid out in self-serve open racks. This meant she could “see all the size 12 shoes at once — even though there were only 10 of them and they were all hideous. It was still less work than asking an attendant if a shoe was available in my size and negotiating their wide-eyed, ‘size what?!?’”.

Inside a Payless.

Inside a Payless.

For my younger sister, Payless was the only place she could buy affordable adaptive footwear for her son. But more than that, “when he first got his braces the salesperson at Payless was super kind and made an effort to help him feel ‘normal’ by sharing that their friend's kid wore them, too.” Cathy Hannabach, a book editor, added, “When department stores treat you like crap [for being poor], Payless was always friendly.”

The store also had a reputation for being, in the words of Ryan Fong, a literature professor at Kalamazoo College, “an important site of queer access.” “They were the only place I could get heels that fit me for an affordable price the first time I did drag,” he said. Kelly Reddy-Best, an assistant professor at Iowa State University who studies, in her words, “how queer women’s identities are negotiated in everyday styles by women in the Midwest part of the United States from the late twentieth century to the present,” said that this perception of Payless aligns with her research. “The way the store was set up in terms of spatial and social arrangement — it was certainly gendered — but it was self-serve and the sections had some fluidity,” she said. “If there wasn’t enough room they would just wrap around, so it wouldn’t look weird if you were in the ‘wrong’ section.” According to Reddy-Best, the perception of being in the wrong section is one of the most stressful aspects of shopping for people who don’t easily fit in the gender binary.

My point here isn’t to argue that Payless has been a progressive wonderland. Rather, the chain is an example of the way consumer capitalism positions itself as the solution to problems it created in the first place. Yes, Payless welcomed many people who were doubly marginalized — not just poor, but poor and queer, poor with physical differences, poor and newly arrived in the U.S. But Payless also created poverty. A 2010 annual report speaks of mitigating “the impact of… expected cost increases by using our size and scale to drive lower costs” and relying “more heavily on factories outside of China.” This is how big business spells “race to the bottom.” At some point, the only way to “drive lower costs” is to pay anonymous factory workers abroad less. Meanwhile, in the U.S, the average Payless sales associate makes $9.50 an hour. Managers pull in a whopping $12 an hour, putting a full-time manager just above the federal poverty level. Eighteen thousand workers will be losing their jobs with Payless’ closure.

Payless demonstrates who the so-called “retail apocalypse” is actually hurting. Most media coverage of the chain’s demise has focused on declining revenue and on the changing whims of consumers. But it’s the lowest-paid workers who are truly feeling this loss. They’re also the ones who need accessible brick and mortar shops. Shopping online still requires relative privilege — reliable internet, credit, a secure address, etc. Big-box stores like Walmart and Target are, frankly, exhausting — I’m an able-bodied adult and I get tired just thinking about going to one. Payless is going away, but like so many things in our current economy — full-time employment, affordable education, healthcare — it won’t be replaced by something that actually meets people’s needs, especially the needs of the very people this system marginalizes.

Shopping for pleasure has always been a moral minefield in American culture, which struggles to reconcile the “Protestant work ethic” with its consumer-based economy and the material indicators of success and wealth. Once, this contradiction could be managed by distinguishing between shopping for need and for leisure. But since the 1980s, that distinction has been less and less clear. Last fall, when Payless “pranked” customers by selling their shoes for super-inflated prices as the fake luxury brand “Palessi,” the response was mostly irritation. At Vox, Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote that it revealed the company’s misguided belief “that most people don’t understand value and pricing and packaging and … just gravitate toward status symbols impulsively.” Payless’s intended point was that their shoes were as good as luxury brands, but the stunt accidentally sent an even more relevant message: it’s not that Payless shoes are “just as good,” but that many luxury brands engage in the same production practices as fast fashion. In other words, in late capitalism, context is the only thing separating “value” from luxury.

This blurred reality creates a world where there’s no real distinction between shopping because we have to or because we want to; there is no more leisure — it’s all just work. And the focus stays on shoppers rather than the system that requires them to keep shopping while offering fewer options.

When I hear people mourning Payless’s demise, I think what they’re really mourning is its human scale. Those overstuffed little stores managed to feel welcoming and local — to account for the messiness and variety of human life — despite being a global enterprise. Teenage me hated Payless because it stood for everything that made me feel isolated, alienated, and not enough. It was a dumpy strip-mall staple, wedged between a video store and a tanning salon, and it was all we had.

But I also loved it because the pleasure in buying new stuff is undeniable, and it gave me a chance to express myself. And so I can only bid Payless a fond farewell: Thanks for all the blisters, and for fitting all of capitalism’s contradictions into one off-brand shoebox.

Sara Tatyana Bernstein, Ph.D, is a writer in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine.