With help of father, son revitalizes Wren family cobbling business

Thursday, December 26, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Lucas Wren, left, and George Wren work together at Wren's Shoe Repair Tuesday. The business, once run by George for 28 years, was re-opened by his son Lucas in April.

COLUMBIA — Wren's Shoe Repair on Buttonwood Drive is packed with remnants of the past.

The sign propped by the front desk was posted outside the original store downtown in the 1980s. Six machines from the old store are still hard at work stitching soles and uppers.

Lucas Wren, who runs the store, brought the machines and the sign out of storage when he reopened his father's business in April, bringing back a shoe repair staple that had operated in downtown Columbia from 1981 to 2009.

The new Wren's Shoe Repair is Lucas' first venture as a small-business owner. But when he decided to reopen the family business, he wanted to maintain the reputation and atmosphere of the original location.

He revived the name and then brought his father, George, along to help, as well. The two work together in the shop — though Lucas now essentially runs the operation — hoping to give customers the same experience they had at the old store.

"It feels good to see familiar faces of people I've dealt with for years who were really good, loyal customers," George said.

"It feels good to have him wanting to carry on the tradition, and it also feels good, me being able to help him and show him and to teach him some things, too."

Like father, like son

George and Lucas Wren's lives have overlapped in curious ways. Neither envisioned owning a shoe store. When they did make the decision to start a business, they did so on a leap of faith. And both were 26 when they launched their respective stores, a coincidence they often laugh about.

Three times a week at around 3:30 p.m., George Wren walks into the shoe shop, says hello to his son and sets to work. Every day they're together, one works on shoes in the back of the store while the other runs the front desk. Then they switch.

No job is too insignificant for Lucas, who tries to fix anything his customers bring through the front door, whether it's a handbag, piece of luggage or an ordinary shoe repair.

While he admits this pledge to his customers can be time consuming, Lucas says it fits the reputation he wants to maintain in the community. He said he doesn't want anyone walking out the door unsatisfied with him or his work.

"I want to make sure everyone's comfortable with their situation," he said. "That's something that my dad always did, and that's something I pride myself on doing, too."

Behind the Tiger Barber Shop

When George Wren first opened up his store in 1981, the odds were against him. He had left his job in shoe repair at a local store to strike out on his own.

He didn't take out any loans and rehabbed broken machinery in his garage to save a few dollars here and there.

The store was situated in an alley behind Tiger Barber Shop, and George said he enjoyed initial success because of the customer base he had built at his previous job.

Soon, word of mouth began to circulate, and the uptick in business allowed George and his wife, Hannah, to expand. Over the next three decades, Wren's Shoe Repair evolved into Wren's Birkenstock, becoming the first such specialty store in Columbia.

The store found almost three decades of success, and the Wrens moved to different downtown locations twice before George made the decision to close. It was the combination of exhaustion and the 2008-09 recession that convinced George it was time to close shop, at least temporarily.

"I didn't really choose it," he said. "It's just something that happened in life."

Machines almost left to gather dust

Had it not been for his son's resolve, the shoe repair machines George bought more than 30 years ago would have been left in a storage space to gather dust.

Three years after George closed the store, Lucas, with his father's blessing, made the decision to reopen, moving the downtown staple to 3601 Buttonwood Drive.

"The name was already established before I was even thought of," Lucas said. "I know when we shut the store down it was sad for the family. I wanted to bring that name back out to the community."

But first, he had to sell his father on the idea. By the time Lucas approached his father about restarting the family business, George had given up on the idea of making the shop fully operational again.

After talking to Lucas, he said he would bless the idea only if the quality of work and service was up to par and his son was passionate about the idea.

The two sat down at the Wrens' country home. Lucas laid out his business plan and explained his vision for the business. He had already researched locations, operating costs, ways to advertise and suppliers.

"He had thought — really thought — this through," George said. "He'd been doing his homework."

After roughly four months of preparation, a new Wren's opened in April.

Repairing shoes on Buttonwood Drive 

In the eight months since, Lucas said he has been pleasantly surprised by the support from old and new customers.

"I recognize some of the customers that come in here," Lucas said. "I used to sell them shoes when I was right out of high school."

On the days where he is the only one in the store, a customer will occasionally wander in and ask him if this is the "old Wren's Shoe Repair." With a slight smile, Lucas tells them it is the same store — just a little bit different.

The Birkenstocks may be gone, the machines may be aging, and the owner has a younger face, but Lucas says the same things that made the first store so successful haven't changed a bit.

"Everyone has to start somewhere," Lucas said. "If it wasn't meant to be, it wouldn’t have happened."

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