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Gimres leaves big footprint in history

-  Shoe stores owners mark 120 years of business


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - SUBMITTED PHOTO Sven Gimre in front of the first Gimre's Shoes store, located in Astoria, circa 1892. When Gimre’s Shoes unveiled a more modern storefront last May, the 120-year-old business proved that it could keep up with changing times and tastes.

On the advice of Michele Reeves of CIVILIS Consultants, Gimre’s ditched its awning and opted for nighttime accent lights, effectively making its presence on Main Street more open and inviting.

(In 2011, Reeves submitted an evaluation of downtown Hillsboro’s aesthetics as part of the city’s effort to revitalize downtown.)

Gimre’s Hillsboro location opened in 1985 as a sister store to both a Forest Grove Branch, now closed, and the flagship store in Astoria. Since then, it has blossomed as a family business that is more than 25 employees strong.

Early setbacks

But its origins are a small village in 19th-century Norway, where a young man named Sven Gimre learned the shoemaking trade and, typical of many sons of Scandinavian farming families at the turn of the century, decided to try his luck in the United States, by way of Ellis Island.

In 1890, Sven joined his brother Peder in Astoria and established a reputation as a peerless shoemaker, opening his own store in 1892 on what is now known as Marine Drive.

But Sven’s story wasn’t to be a simple testament to the American dream. At times, in fact, it seemed that Sven was destined to suffer any possible setback that the early 20th century had to offer.

In the early years of Gimre’s Shoes, Sven lost a child to drowning, another to disease. Not long after, his wife and remaining two children died in an automobile accident on the way to church.

His second marriage to a Norwegian woman produced six children, including Jon Gimre’s father and uncle, who would later take up the family business.

But keeping the shoe business afloat proved to be a test of his tenacity, as the devastating fire of 1922 claimed Gimre’s Shoes, along with several other businesses that were built on the vulnerable wooden pilings that effectively held much of downtown Astoria above the water.

Gimre’s Shoes reopened, and in 1924 settled into its current location on 14th Street. Jon explains that unlike the newer Hillsboro location that has benefitted from modern aesthetic touches, the Astoria store is a historical landmark. In fact, holes in the back room of the store tell the story of an entrepreneur whose traditional values were sometimes at odds with changes in his industry: Sven Gimre believed in handcrafted, custom shoes. This nearly kept him from carrying what would turn out to be one of his most profitable lines of merchandise, because the popular Bergman line of utility footwear was produced in a Portland factory.

“The story goes that the first time Mr. Bergman came down, my grandfather threw him out of the store and said ‘Who in the world is ever going to buy a shoe made by a machine?’ “ says Jon.

Luckily, Sven relented and Bergman’s were the first commercially made shoes to be carried in Gimre’s.

Family business award

Then came the Depression, when Sven was compelled to barter shoes for food. His store would survive that lean decade, even if Sven’s personal wealth would not.

Sven saw two of his sons leave home to fight in World War II, although both would return safely and become partners in the family business: Anders headed the Forest Grove store, and Kermit took over Astoria. Although Kermit would eventually pass the torch on two his two sons, Jon admits that he initially resisted — even opting for law school and successfully passing the Oregon State Bar Exam.

His father never forced the issue, he said.

But instead of becoming an attorney, Jon found himself drawn to the idea of going into business with his brother, Pete. In 1985, Jon opened the Gimre’s Store in Hillsboro.

Now, Jon and his brother Pete own and operate Gimre’s Shoes Inc., acting as its sole shareholders and officers. While Pete takes the lead on buying and marketing, Jon mainly runs the operational side of the company.

He says it’s proven to be a good choice — one that in 1994 was recognized by Oregon State University’s College of Business, which named Gimre’s Shoes the Small Family Business of the Year.

That isn’t to say it’s been easy. Although they’ve experienced nothing like the hardscrabble adversity their grandfather endured, the brothers have had to cut their losses at times. Their Seaside location’s profits suffered when the town’s factory outlets opened, and the store was eventually shuttered. A New Balance store in downtown Seattle proved to be a particular drain during the financial difficulties of 2007, and was closed in 2008.

But their family’s good name has provided them with success: Jon feels that their history of carrying New Balance shoes, coupled with Gimre’s philosophy toward customer service, recommended Gimre’s Shoes Inc. as an ideal licensed partner for the first New Balance concept store in Portland, which opened in 1998.

The New Balance Pioneer Place location has since been closed, but Jon and Pete still run New Balance stores in Bridgeport Village, Bellevue and Lynwood, Wash.

Local ties

Even with Gimre Shoes Inc.’s success in other cities, Jon and his family remain firmly rooted in the area. He and wife Anita have lived in Banks for more than 20 years. Their children, daughter Kerensa and son Karsten, both attended Pacific University in Forest Grove and are attending graduate programs at the university of Arizona and Columbia University, respectively.

Jon attributes much of his personal success to family support and to having his brother so closely involved in the business. Various professional associations in the area, like a regional chapter of the Shoe Retailers’ Association, have been invaluable to helping Jon and Pete streamline their ideas and put their business practices into perspective.

And while Gimre’s adapts to business demands in the form of advanced technology and social media, the core mission remains the same.

“Our philosophy came from our dad, and it was always to treat the customer as you would a guest in your home,” Jon says.

Gimre’s Shoes is at 256 East Main St., Hillsboro. Visit them online at gimresshoes.com.




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