When Susan Cook and Patrick Riordan walked into the Payless shoe store that Saturday, their mission was simple: They were on the hunt for a reasonably priced pair of shoes for Susan. The store was going out of business, and its “Everything must go!” signs — plastered all over the shop’s windows — promised to deliver a deal.
But one revelation, two hours, three receipts, and 247 pairs of shoes later, the couple left the Hamilton Marketplace Payless with the store’s entire stock and a plan to donate the truckload of footwear to families in need.
It all started when Cook and Riordan noticed a clerk at the front of the store marking down shoe prices from $3 to $2 per pair. In March, Payless ShoeSource had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced plans to shutter its remaining 2,100 stores across the country, leaving shops like the one in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, to spend months slowly, painfully, selling off the store’s remaining merchandise.
"I started talking to the manager, and he was saying that it had been months and they wanted to close already, they just wanted to shut down and move on with their lives,” said Riordan.
While the couple eyed the aisles of discounted women’s shoes, inspiration struck.
“It just came to me,” Riordan recalled. “I said, ‘What if we buy everything here? What if we shut this down now?’ And, then, I thought, ‘We could donate everything to a women’s shelter.'"
Cook stared at her partner of 31 years. "My first thought was, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” she said. “But then I got excited. We were in the right place at the right time.”
Thrilled by the prospect of closing shop for a charitable cause, the Payless manager offered to cut a deal, selling the shoes to the couple for a dollar per pair.
And before they knew it, Cook and Riordan were buying the store.
Over the next two hours, the New Egypt, N.J., couple said they couldn’t help smiling as they watched the Payless clerk ring up the ballet slippers, the light-up Velcro shoes with the monster trucks, the glittery boots, the business pumps, the size 15 sneakers, and the tights and socks, already picturing them on the feet of women going to job interviews and kids starting school.
The process required three separate transactions, since the store’s computers could check out only 99 items at a time. Though Cook said she regularly donates clothes to charity and tries to help “pretty much anyone who comes to my door,” neither she nor Riordan had ever made a such a large contribution before. But they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help.
“Believe it or not, we’re not rich. We go paycheck to paycheck, we rob Peter to pay Paul, just like everyone else,” said Cook, who works as a sales administrative coordinator. “But you think about making such a difference for 247 people, and that’s so worth it.”
When the deed was done, Cook said it was her daughter, Rachel, who suggested they take the haul to Womanspace, an agency in Lawrenceville, N.J. that helps families affected by domestic and sexual violence.
“I was just thinking these women sometimes leave their homes in the middle of the night with very little; when your feet are out of shoes, and very tired, couldn’t a pair of slippers help?” Cook said, adding that she knows what it’s like to receive help from strangers, and “tries to pay it forward.”
“If a simple thing like a shoe just helps them, we’re blessed that we were able to do that.”
One in three women and one in four men in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When they flee their abusers, they sometimes do so with just the clothes on their backs, said Womanspace Executive Director Patricia Hart.
Shoes, said Hart, are a needed donation at the 42-year-old agency’s Safe House, which keeps an inventory of clothing and supplies for area families.
Located just outside of Trenton, Hart said Womanspace provides survivors “the opportunity to both heal and become more self-sufficient,” offering counseling, legal services, residential housing, a phone hotline and outreach programs for those impacted by domestic and sexual violence.
When she heard about Cook and Riordan’s donation, Hart said Womanspace’s staff and volunteers were “overwhelmed” by their kindness. And the variety in the couple’s shoe donation — which included men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes of every style and size — means that there’s “something for everyone there,” she said.
“Everybody needs shoes, and sometimes that’s not the first priority for families who are struggling. If you’re living in a house with domestic violence, it’s about control, and sometimes that means control over money or the clothes you wear," Hart said, adding that it’s not unusual for a child to come to the agency wearing shoes two sizes too small. “A donation like this will go a long way.”
That day in Payless, Cook not only walked away with the pair of shoes she was looking for, but hundreds of others, and the hope her and Riordan’s actions will inspire others to give back to their own communities.
She said the “best feeling” came after Womanspace posted about the couple’s donation on Facebook, and a commenter asked, “How can I help?”
“We wanted people and these women to know there are still people trying to help," Cook said. "They might say, ‘OK, they didn’t really spend that much, but they did so much, and maybe I can, too.’ ”