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Last week, rumors began to circulate that budget shoe store Payless would shutter 1,000 (more than a fifth) of its locations as the brand tries to pay off $600 million in debt while competing with discount retailers like DSW.
It’s no surprise that the brand known for cheap, trend-adjacent shoes is struggling to adjust to a changing retail culture. Shoppers have abandoned the malls where Payless was once ubiquitous in favor of online shopping, and the off-brand products stocked by Payless carry the stigma of being second-rate copies (I’m thinking of you, seventh grade generic Crocs). And to be honest, the shoes don’t often last more than a season.
But for me, Payless was — and still is! — the first step to figuring out my personal style at a price I could afford. And more importantly, Payless has always offered options that could fit me, a 6-foot-tall woman who wears size 12 shoes.
I can’t remember the first pair I bought at the chain, but by the time I reached high school I was buying Payless shoes almost exclusively. This was before I had a credit card, before the real advent of online shopping. With my part-time job bagging groceries, I was earning money every week; I felt rich — until I went to the mall, where shoes in my size (when I could find them) often topped $100 a pair at department stores.
If you have big feet, or are overweight, or have a body type that otherwise veers from “straight size,” then you know the extreme relief it is to walk into a store and know that it will carry your size. People who are thin, people who have “regular”-size feet, cannot know the embarrassment that comes when all the stores your friends shop in serve only as reminders of your otherness. And even now, when body positivity is at an all-time high in the United States, plus-size clothes and shoes bigger than a size 10 or 11 are still difficult to find, especially within an attainable price range.
But not so at Payless, a haven for cheap size 12s and even 13s. Thanks to its buy-one-get-one half-off policy, as a high school shopper, my style knew no limits. I bought my first heels there, a pair of sensible black pumps. I bought four-inch wedges in hot pink. I bought glittery ballet flats, snakeskin-print slip-ons, black combat boots. I bought a sparkly pair to wear to the prom. I bought the baby-blue off-brand Crocs. Each pair cost between $20 and $60, which allowed me to experiment. And unlike most plus-size clothing sections, the offerings were exactly the same for my smaller-footed companions; when I donned soft brown moccasins, I could see identical pairs down the aisle, from size 11 to size 5.
Payless afforded me the opportunity to explore what I wanted to put on my body as I learned to love and appreciate the weirdness of my proportions. My feet, though large, allowed me to play basketball and swim and walk without falling all over myself. (After all, I would have looked a little ridiculous in a size 6.)
I’m now 23, with a full-time job and a salary that I’m grateful to have. I make enough money to shop occasionally at places besides the bargain retailer. But I still buy from Payless (there are two within a few blocks of my Brooklyn apartment), and I receive compliments when I wear shoes like this pair of wine-colored flats or these day-to-night low-wedge sandals all the time.
I love the eyebrow raises I get when I tell people where they’re from. And while the shoes (and the store) may not last forever, I’ll always be grateful for the confidence boost they gave me as a suburban teen just figuring out my style.