Resiliency Through the Lens of Longevity
Colby and Brian Horne of Colburn Shoe Store Share Their Family Perspective
It’s common knowledge around Belfast that Colburn Shoe Store is the “oldest shoe store in America.” But the fact is worth repeating – our little city is home to the oldest shoe store in the nation!
A lot of people also know that Colburn Shoe Store is a family-run business. But did you know the current owner, Colby Horne, is the fifth generation Horne to run the store? Or that since the store opened 187 years ago, only two families have owned the business?
Started by the Colburn family in 1832, the business was purchased in 1922 by a member of what is now the Horne family. As previous owner Brian Horne likes to point out, the store has now been in the Horne family longer than the Colburn family – 97 years compared to the original family’s 90-year run. Also remarkable is that the store has always been in the heart of Belfast, and has been in its current location at 79 Main Street since 1905, which amounts to 114 years of occupying the same building.
Today, Colburn Shoe Store is owned by 36 year-old Colby Horne, who bought it from his father Brian three years ago. Just like Brian, Colby grew up helping out around his family’s store, learning the business and the customers from a young age. But Colby didn’t take on the shoe business right away. Instead, he left to work for Enterprise Rent-a-car, which he says was “probably the best thing that happened to me because it was like a baptism-by-fire business degree – I learned so much about business.” After six years with Enterprise, Colby returned to Belfast seeking a higher quality of life, and joined the family business.
It’s clear the Horne family figured out how to work together through the generations, and have passed that success down from uncle to nephew, and from father to son. The original Horne who purchased Colburn Shoe Store in 1922 was Brian’s great uncle. He in turn passed the business down to his nephew, who later sold it to his brother Alan Horne. Alan was Brian’s father and sold the store to Brian in 1986. Brian followed tradition and sold the business to Colby in 2016.
When asked about the key to their success, Colby responded that consistency is important: “consistency in how we operate day to day makes us more efficient.” And that consistency, matched with a high level of care and expertise, results in a better experience for customers, who are loyal and travel from over an hour away to shop with Colby and Brian. “People come in and ask to talk to us by name,” said Brian. Colby added that their employees – of which there are 3 full time in the winter and another 3 part timers in the summer – are well trained to ask for help from Colby or Brian if they don’t know the answer to a customer question. “We don’t want customers to walk out with the wrong product,” said Colby.
And customers are coming in with more ideas and education on what they want and need because of the internet. But in the age of unlimited information, more is not always better, and the intangibility of internet shopping actually drives more people into Colburn’s brick and mortar establishment seeking a friendly face and true expertise. “Customer service and knowledge of our product” – which has been gained through generations of experience – “is what drives sales and foot traffic. People want to do business with people that are masters at their craft,” said Colby.
And this is a statement of fact, not boast. The father-son team are laidback and unassuming, even as their accomplishments rack up. A recent major accolade was being recognized as New England Shoe Store of the Year in 2018, a year after the business’ 185th anniversary. “That’s a big feather in our cap. To be recognized New England-wide made me feel like, hey, I guess I’m doing something right,” Brian said.
Brian and Colby don’t just ride on the family and business’ good reputation though. They continue to bring in high-quality products and offer excellent customer service. And part of running a successful business is taking risks, and even failing. Colby described how both he and his father have had to take risks through the years. “Remember the Ugg craze? Brian bought way more Uggs than he was comfortable buying, and I did that this summer with a big order too.” Colby continued, pointing at the twelve foot wall of shoes that runs the length of showroom, “we’ve failed too. There are styles up there on the wall and we haven’t sold one, no one’s picked it up off the shelf.” Some of it is about fashion, but “there’s eye appeal too, when you first come in,” added Brian. “We’ve had some really good sale reps that have helped us a lot too – the people that know what our business is.” Colby jumped in, “Wendy” – one of those sales representatives – “worked with dad for 26 years, so she knew everything, she didn’t even have to consult with him, and the customers knew that she was knowledgeable so they trusted her too.”
These long term relationships – along with consistency, experience, and a dose of healthy risk taking – are key components of Colburn’s success. These relationships extend beyond the sales representatives, employees, and customers and out into the broader community. Colburn Shoe Store supports local efforts through contributions: “anytime someone comes in with an ask, we find something for them. It doesn’t matter what it’s about – these are our people, this is our community – you gotta have their back and help where you can,” said Colby.
The business owners have invested in the community in more specific ways as well, including through a partnership with Our Town Belfast. In fact, Our Town Belfast, as well as the Belfast Creative Coalition, were partially the results of efforts that Brian Horne was a part of back when Belfast experienced an economic slump after the chicken processing and shoe manufacturing plants shuttered in the 1970’s and 1980’s. “It was quite a span of time before MBNA came in, in the mid 1990’s. Those times were definitely rough. Waldo County had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at that time,” said Brian.
Colby picked up the story, “but we’ve been getting steadily cleaner, more popular, more vibrant, and we have more people involved in the community. It started out with grassroots groups of downtown business owners like my dad – they started to promote downtown and it eventually turned into Our Town Belfast and other organizations. People have gotten really interested and involved in making this the Midcoast destination and everyone’s hard work is paying off.” Brian recalled the efforts the city and community invested in to “put Belfast on the map” by hiring a consulting firm. The resulting marketing efforts were a “big shot in our arm;” it not only created interest in the city as a destination but also as a place to settle down, remembered Brian.
Brian credits strong leadership as an important piece of Belfast’s recovery, including that of Paige Worth, the mayor of Belfast from the late 1980’s through the 1990’s. “A lot of people put time and effort into making decisions that have made Belfast what it is. Getting the footbridge renovated – because it was almost at the point of getting knocked into the bay – was important, and it’s such an asset now. Downtown Belfast is just such a beautiful place to be.” Colby joined in, “the Rail Trail and Harborwalk are some of the best things that have happened. People come here, and see the potential.” Colby continued, “We really appreciate Our Town Belfast. You’re involved and really want to make this a place where we can all be successful. Our logo gets extra recognition being out there, but the partnership really strengthens the bonds with businesses, especially new businesses that come to town. You provide a platform, just like the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, an opportunity to meet each other and build relationships.”
Standing on the shoulders of previous generations, Brian and now Colby invest in Belfast in a number of ways because it’s good – good for their business, good for their community. Colburn Shoe Store is an important part of Belfast’s unique cultural heritage, and Colby and Brian are integrally involved in growing and sustaining downtown Belfast as individuals and business owners.
(Photo of Brian and Colby Horne in 2017 courtesy of Erica Thoms / Penbaypilot.com)
79 Main St, Belfast Maine.