The Genteel
November 21, 2017
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Photograph by Amanda Coen.

It's not every day that trying on a pair of shoes foretells your future. But that's precisely what happened to Dave Binns, owner of the Aurora Shoe Company, when he was 13-years-old. His first pair of Aurora shoes left such an impression on him, that years later, he would eventually return to his hometown to take over operations. 

Nestled in the rolling hills of upstate New York, the niche shoe manufacturer has made its home in a small production facility overlooking Cayuga Lake. The company is run by a team of nine skilled artisans, all of whom live within a 10-mile radius of the company's headquarters.

View inside the Aurora Shoe Company factory.  
Photograph by Amanda Coen. 

Founded in 1991, the company continues to produce its staple of four shoe styles, each of which is offered in both men's and women's sizes, five colours and up to three widths. By offering a limited selection of designs, the company focuses on creating high-quality, simple and wearable pieces from locally-sourced materials that withstand the force of passing trends.

Driving down the local highway, it would be easy to miss the Aurora Shoe Company were it not for a modest sign that announces its existence. Housed in a tan metal shed, the building is similar to other utilitarian structures common to the area. However, on the inside, a special operation is happening. A small metal bell attached to the somewhat inconspicuous entrance door alerts the team when visitors enter. Binns personally comes to greet visitors and on the day we visited, offered to show us around. 

In 2009, Binns bought the company from its co-founders, George Shurman and Mary Jane Dann. After graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and working for the Georgia-Pacific paper company at its Plattsburg, New York location, Binns gained a deeper understanding of what it means to manufacture in America. He told The Genteel, "I felt that manufacturing can happen here if you're making a quality product."

As we've seen manufacturing shift overseas, I think people are beginning to realise the value of domestic, American-made artisanal goods.

When the opportunity arose for Binns to run his own business with the potential to sustain local jobs and produce an artisanal product, he didn't hesitate. Having grown up just a few miles from the company's original location across from Wells College in downtown Aurora, the Aurora Shoe Company had grown to become a party of the town's landscape. 

In an area that had once seen numerous shoe manufacturers in nearby towns such as Johnstown, Gloversville and Auburn, the Aurora Shoe Company is considered a novelty today. One of the few still operating, it acquired many of the old machines it uses daily, some with over 80 years of wear-and-tear, from nearby manufacturers and cobblers that have since auctioned off their equipment and shut down.

When asked what it means to be an artisanal manufacturer in America today, Binns explained, "There's recently been a renewed interest in handcrafts here in the States. It's kind of going back to our manufacturing roots of quality, of detail, of attention put on the individual product. I think the [switch to] mass production [that happened] half-way through the last century stamped out products that didn't have a unique identity. Now they've found cheaper places to make those stamped out goods. But [for] the companies that remain here or devote themselves to small, niche manufacturing of quality products, I think the craftsmanship that goes into each product is very evident and it's hard to come by. As we've seen manufacturing shift overseas, I think people are beginning to realise the value of domestic, American-made artisanal goods." 

The company adds about 50 shoes per day to its inventory, going through about 12 hides per day, Binns tells The Genteel. All in all, it takes around four weeks for a pair of shoes to be produced. Each employee is responsible for a particular stage of production and they are often switching roles to keep up with demand. On the day we visited, Binns and Randy Nasholts were completing the first step of the shoe-making process - cutting raw leather hides into rectangles that would later be stretched to make the leather more flexible. Meanwhile, Maggie Skeldon was busy sewing triangles through two pieces of cut leather that would later be attached to a sole to form the shoe. 

Finished shoes hanging at the production facility.
Photography by Amanda Coen.

Unlike many cobblers that use a shoe last to form a shoe's shape, the Aurora Shoe Company uses a process called "wet forming" that allows shoes to conform to the shape of the wearer's foot. After the basic shoe form is sewn together by Skeldon and attached to the sole, it is then placed in warm water and gently stretched from the inside using a five-pound metal shaping tool. The flexible leather is then personally sculpted by the end wearer as he or she adds mileage to the shoe.

For Binns, part of being an American manufacturer and running an artisan business involves buying American-made materials and being an active member of the local community. High-grade, full grain leather is sourced from the Horween Leather Tannery in Chicago, which has been running non-stop since 1905. Vibram® soles are purchased from the Quabaug Corporation in North Brookfield, Massachusettes which has been in business since 1916 and is the exclusive North American manufacturer of the branded product. Any rubber scraps left over from cut soles are collected and ground up by a local company to be used for cow bedding material - in great demand given the agricultural surroundings. While the company hopes to eventually incorporate scrap leather into its line, for now, scraps are donated to local camps and art programs. Currently, fifth-year Industrial Design students in a product practicum module at Syracuse University have been challenged to find creative ways to give the scraps a second life.

As many businesses struggle to stay afloat in the midst of a weak economy, somehow Aurora Shoe Company's simple designs and slow and steady approach have given them enough stability over the years to overcome even the hardest of times. As a small company, camaraderie between employees is key, with each person recognised for their important role in maintaining cohesion. For instance, Dann, the company's co-founder, can still be found hard at work and has come to earn the reputation of being the "mother" of the group, providing stability, continuity and a good dose of sarcastic humour. Nasholts has been with the company since 1998, enjoys routine and repetition and is known for his strong work ethic. Bill Hitchcock is a man of many talents who has been with the company for almost 20 years, grew up on a nearby farm, and can recount the history of each machine in the shop. Skeldon may be considered a relative foreigner, having grown up outside the immediate area in a town about two hours by car. Originally from Watertown, New York, Skeldon has been part of the company family for 10 years, is hard to distract while at work, and performs the dreaded task of operating the heavy-duty sewing machine. 

Customers send in photos and a short description of their shoe stories from all over the world, re-enforcing the subtle imprint this small company has left across the world.

Despite having unique personalities, the team works together to fulfill a growing number of orders. Most sales come from online and wholesale orders, with Etsy being a major outlet and a way for the company to connect to others artisans. The shoes can also be bought directly at the factory and in several retail outlets worldwide. A boutique owner in Japan has consistently placed orders for about 18 years, with demand recently peaking at about 1,000 shoes being shipped to him every couple of months, says Binns. 

For those who doubt the longevity of the shoes, the company offers a repair service; customers can send in their used shoes to be fully repaired and re-furbished for US$50. The company also takes a vested interest in learning about the afterlife of the shoes. The company's blog, which is managed by Binns' sister, Alyssa, features the section, "Where have your Aurora Shoes taken YOU?" Customers send in photos and a short description of their shoe stories from all over the world, re-enforcing the subtle imprint this small company has left across the world. 

Although it has been many years since Binns outgrew his original pair of Aurora Shoes at the age of 16, his passion for the company and the ethos that drive it continue. The unpretentious environment, steady team of skilled employees, and a genuine familiarity with the local surroundings make the Aurora Shoe Company a truly American heritage operation.

While "artisanal" and "heritage" have somewhat become buzzwords these days, it is obvious that Binns intends to continue to operate the company long after such trends pass. The company is open-minded, innovative in small ways when deemed appropriate, and offers a consistent product that loyal followers have come to count on over the years.

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