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Shoe store owner dreams about what could have been β€” without the store

Sunday, July 1, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:56 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 2, 2012
At age 34, Jody Paschal is a business owner on a changing path. With three years under his belt as owner of Gidley's Shoe Store, Paschal is facing a changing business landscape.

FULTON — A decade before a shoe store claimed Jody Paschal, he swore it never would. He stood there, alone and illuminated in the quiet dark, on the stage of William Woods University's Dulany Auditorium, in the world of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie."

His character, Tom Wingfield, was a conflicted young man, yearning for more than what was laid in front of him. Paschal never felt such a connection to a role. He dressed in a navy blue peacoat and khakis — his own clothes.

The stained glass of the chapel-turned-theater let in just enough light for him to see the faces of 200 audience members. Left of stage was Helen Gidley, who owned the shoe store where Paschal worked part time in high school and, now, college.

He paused, prolonging the silence before his monologue denouncing a career in the shoe industry. He took drags from Tom's Herbal Gold cigarette as the lines came to him. It tasted of burning hay.

"You think I'm in love with Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend 55 years down there in that — Celotex interior! With fluorescent tubes? Look! I’d rather somebody pick up a crowbar and battered out my brains ..."

Paschal spoke Tom's words as his own. He remembers hearing, from offstage, a friend of Helen's murmur: "Did you hear what he said?"

Fourteen years later, Jody Paschal is the owner of Gidley's Shoe Store. Storefronts had been closing left and right in downtown Fulton when he bought the store from Helen Gidley on April Fools' Day three years ago, with little more than a handshake. He had never taken a business course, but he promised himself he'd better the store and his life.

Many of those included in both Generation X and Generation Y see personal achievement underlying the American Dream, according to a 2011 MetLife study. At 34, Paschal could belong to either of those generations based on overlapping definitions of the two. By contrast, the vast majority of their parents, the baby boomers and the Silent Generation, claimed the American Dream was about opportunity for all, according to the study.

"I thought I'd be much further along in life at 34 than I am," Paschal said. He is grateful for the opportunities he's had. He owns a home, a business and has a college degree. "But I just thought I would be further along financially and personally at 34."

Paschal is in the minority of those in his generation actively working toward better financial security. He's among the 21 percent who hold a second job and the 14 percent with their own business. And he is one of the nation's half a million small-business owners under 40 — just 15 percent of all small-business owners.

Reality sets in

The first year he owned Gidley's, 2009, had its moments. There were fun times basking in the newness of small-business ownership. He moved the store to a new location, just a few blocks up Court Street on Fulton's main drag, and family and friends flocked to the Brick District to help out. Paschal's older sister, Angie Pezold, recalls at least 30 people were there. His dad and brother-in-law tore down walls and put up new ones. Fellow downtown business owners lent scaffolding and tools. He remodeled and repainted and made Gidley's Shoe Store his own space.

"There was lots of excitement, and some exhaustion, to go along with it because it was such a big push to get it done," said Pezold, who still remembers the smile on her brother's face that day. "You know, there were a lot of different emotions that day."

In year two, reality set in, along with the sleepless nights.

The recession and its stingy credit market have added a new challenge to operating a small business. Researchers from MU and Purdue University have found that more and more small-business owners now pour household savings and personal assets into their businesses, at untold risk. In small towns, where small-business owners feel a social responsibility to survive and to contribute to the community, it presents a major strain.

Paschal is no exception.

He put a house he inherited from his grandparents up as collateral on a $45,000 loan from Callaway Bank. Paschal wouldn't give specific numbers but says he has sunk enough of his own money into Gidley's in the past three years that he could have bought a second house.

"My big fear was, well, what if this doesn't work out and I lose my house?" Paschal said. His loan officer and local businessmen assured him that the loan wasn't too big to pay off.

Paschal drew up business plans, complete with sales projections, to apply for the loan. Three years later, Gidley's has yet to reach one of those projections. Nor has he fully paid for the store; he still writes Helen Gidley a check every month. His last payment to her should come before the end of this year.

"A lot of people who have businesses like this have second jobs because you have to keep putting your money back in the business," said Paschal, who also works as a server for a friend's catering business a few times per month. "But you still have your personal bills to pay."

Paschal said he couldn't sell the store now if he wanted because of a poor market and the debt he's carrying. The only way he could come out on top financially is if the store closed because he would profit off the going-out-of-business sales.

But when Paschal bought Gidley's, it was to prevent exactly that.

A push to keep the store alive

Decades ago, Missouri was a hub of the shoe industry, with St. Louis at the center and smaller cities like Fulton supporting outlying factories. That's all gone now. Gidley's used to offer nothing but American-made shoes, Paschal said. Now he carries a lone model of New Balance running shoes among hundreds of imports.

In the 1960s, Fulton had at least seven shoe stores. Gidley's is the last of them. In fact, Gidley's is the last original business left on Court Street. It has existed, in some form or another, since before World War II, when a man named Cecil Garrett began stocking new shoes to sell out of his repair shop. The gray wooden horse Garrett built, complete with a crude paint job and real leather saddle, still stands in Gidley's next to the cash register. Paschal rode that horse when he was a kid, back when his mother, father, two sisters and he would buy their shoes at Gidley's.

When Helen Gidley lost her lease and decided that, at 79, she was too old to relocate a store, the only two options she saw were closing or selling to Paschal, who by then had managed the store for several years. Paschal said Gidley was more grandmother than boss to him.

"I felt very responsible for keeping it going," Paschal said. "Not only for the people of Fulton but for the other businesses downtown. If one business closes it's a huge hole in the business district, because it's one less thing for people to come downtown for, and it's one more vacant building."

Paschal can poke his head out of Gidley's front door and see a half dozen of downtown Fulton's 18 empty storefronts, most of them victims of the recent Great Recession. Two jewelry stores are gone and nothing took their place. A cafe is gone, and a restaurant and a furniture store. When Paschal looks at the brown brick shell of what used to be the furniture warehouse, he imagines a microbrewery, complete with an expansive tap room and a mezzanine, with top-level apartments above it.

"You know, I can see the potential in things," he said. "But that would cost you a million dollars."

Dreams of the big stage

From childhood, Paschal was full of varied talents and interests. He had a knack for pulling pranks on his sisters, like the time he unloaded on his older sister a jar of grasshoppers he'd collected. Or the time he was mad at his sisters and tied all their doors together to trap them in their rooms.

He was a talented baseball player, said Pezold, his sister. In high school, he was involved in the Future Business Leaders of America, where he first toyed with the notion of owning his own business. He acted often in high school, too. But Paschal was unsure of what he wanted to do after graduating, so he took a year off before college and continued working at Gidley's in that time.

He later attended William Woods University, where he majored in theater. At the beginning, he dreamed of moving to New York and making it big on the stage. But by the end of his college days, Paschal had decided against New York and planned to stay in Fulton as a theater teacher.

"He grew up here in a smaller community, and at that point he wasn't ready to make that leap to a giant city," said Joe Potter, who has directed Paschal in several plays at William Woods, both as a student and community member. Paschal has become an honorary member of the Potter family, sometimes joining them on vacations. "Of course he was young, too, when all that was going on. He wasn't ready to commit to all that."

Potter said students usually fall into one of two categories: Those who want to pursue theater as a career and those who pursue it as a hobby. With Paschal, though, he couldn't really tell.

"It wasn't so much hard to figure out what he was all about," Potter said. "It was just a matter of finding out where he was headed next."

Paschal said he felt an obligation to stay near Fulton and realized he could be happy performing on a smaller stage. Almost all of his friends and family are here; they get together at least once a week, and Paschal makes a point of seeing his nephews' soccer and basketball games.

Paschal ended up teaching speech and theater at North Callaway High School for two years before quitting. While he taught, he worked at Gidley's on weekends and during the summer. He loved his students and still keeps in touch with a few of them on Facebook. But he disliked many of the other aspects of teaching — school politics and bureaucratic policies such as the Missouri Assessment Program that he thought missed the mark.

Now, though, he misses it and wishes he never left. If he wasn't trapped in the shoe store, he said, he'd like to go back to teaching.

That's a big difference Paschal sees between people in his generation and his father's: People don't have the loyalty they once did toward their jobs. They're always looking for the next best thing. And sometimes the next best thing isn't always the next best thing. It's like a friend of his, who also made a drastic career change, told him: "You know, Jody, it's the same old grass. It's the same old grass."

Almost half of generations X and Y surveyed in the 2011 MetLife study said earning a higher living standard than their parents was critical to their American Dream. The outlook for that is getting bleaker and bleaker, though. Fewer than half of Americans expected today's youth to achieve a better standard of living than their parents, according to a Gallup poll from last spring. That's the most pessimistic response for that poll in more than three decades.

At the time Paschal was entering college, that year's version of the same poll showed more than 60 percent of Americans expected their generation to have a better life than their parents.

Paschal's father, Walter Paschal, spent a lifetime as a pipe fitter and welder after serving in Vietnam. Then more than 20 years at a local bottling plant and another 25 at the Fulton State Hospital.

"By the time my father was 34, he had three children, two jobs, had fought a war and built a home. I'm nowhere near any of that," Paschal said. "I think about that all the time."

These are the things Paschal said he wants in life — a stable job, a wife, children and a role in his community. He has achieved at least one.

Community man

By mid-March of his third year owning Gidley's, Paschal is a well-known community voice. The store helped with notoriety, but he's helped himself along the way. He created a Facebook page for Gidley's that has a loyal following. He hosts a ladies' night every month and serves cocktails. He also has a stable of customers held over from Gidley's younger days, who have remained faithful to the store and have come to know Paschal.

Paige Piper drove 26 miles from Mexico, Mo., to buy shoes from Gidley's, as she's done for the better part of a century. She and a friend struggled through the glass front door — it sticks — and shuffled toward a pair of high heels with crisscross  straps and open toes. The shoes are silver, like Piper’s hair.

She tried them on and fell for them, with Paschal's urging.

"How much?"

"60."

"That's too much."

"For a woman of your means?"

"Too much."

Piper glanced at her friend. "Don’t let your daughter see those," her friend said.

"I think they're fun.” She reclined in the chrome-piped chair and extended a leg toward Paschal. "Do you think they're fun?"

"I think they're fantastic," he said.

"That's awfully expensive."

He offered 20 percent off. She bit.

"I know she enjoys the art of the deal," Paschal said after the sale. "I wouldn't have given just anybody 20 percent off. But she's a good customer."

Soon after Piper left, Paschal closed the store early and headed to a charity dinner for the United Way, attended by prominent local figures. Since becoming a business owner, Paschal has become more and more vocal in civic conversation. He opposed a downtown smoking ban, though he doesn't smoke, because he thought it was too intrusive. He opposed a downtown beautification project, because he didn't want anyone cutting down trees without a firm plan to replace them. He used to worry that by being so outward with his opinion, and wearing his Republican leanings on his sleeve, he might drive away some business.

But he's past that now, looking ahead to bigger things and adamant that a shoe store won't claim him.

"I just have some big decisions to make in the next six months to a year," Paschal said. "It seems like the right time. In your 20s, you think, 'Oh, I have all the time in the world to figure out what I'm going to do with my life. Then you hit 30 and you say, 'Well, I'm 30 now and I need to make some big decisions.'"

Going for it

The first of those decisions came last month, when he decided to run for political office. A few local officials approached him about running for Callaway County assessor, and Paschal saw it as the right opportunity to advance his career and become more involved in the community.

"He is very active citizen, so politics doesn't surprise me," his sister said. "I can see him in the political world."

County assessor is the stable kind of job, with community prominence, that Paschal wants. But it leaves the future of his small business — a gamble in itself — in question.

Paschal knows he couldn't run Gidley's as he does now if he became assessor. He'd have to hire a full-time manager and a part-time worker, and they would consume the salary he now draws from the store. Anything extra would have to be plowed back into the business.

Helen Gidley, who still works in the store, has issues with Paschal running for office. He's noticed it. She thinks he might be taking on too many different things. For example, Paschal sits on the board of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton. He's on the social committee at the Fulton Country Club. He's a member of the Fulton Chamber of Commerce. He volunteers as a member of the portfolio review board in the William Woods Theatre Department and continues to act in local theater; he's preparing for a role in an upcoming performance of "Our Town." And there is his part-time work for his friend's catering business.

One evening this past spring, he helped cater the Lincoln Days Dinner for the Callaway County Republicans. That is where one of the local commissioners approached him and confirmed his running for county assessor. Minutes later, the master of ceremonies was calling Paschal to the stage for an impromptu speech.

There he stood, alone on the stage at KC Country Hall in Kingdom City. He faced a crowd of Callaway County's most influential Republicans — local officials, state representatives and senators.

Paschal had flecks of mashed potatoes, pork loin, corn and green beans smeared across his white dress shirt and black slacks — he was at the dinner as a caterer, not a candidate.

His hands shook.

He stated his name. He stated his purpose. He apologized for his attire.

"I wasn't expecting to give a speech," he said. "But like all good Republicans, I'm out working."

The room welcomed him, and he relaxed. He made promises, but not too many. He asked for their support. He played the part. Then he walked back to the kitchen to wash dishes.

That's how Jody Paschal, seven months before the election he hopes will change his life, declared he was going for it.


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