So long and thanks for all the blisters: A bittersweet eulogy for Payless shoes
Payless embodied the worst excesses of capitalism while giving choice to low-income people, says writer
There's a distinctive smell to a Payless ShoeSource store that Sara Tatyana Bernstein describes as "off-gassing pleather."
"It's this kind of plasticky smell and fluorescent lights. No one's really paying attention to you, it's basically you and the shoes, and you find your size, you kind of look at your section and try and figure out if there's anything that matches your style," the writer and academic told Day 6.
"Usually you just left and didn't feel great about anything, but every once in a while there was that one special pair that really just like, brought everything together."
In February, Payless announced it was going into creditor protection in Canada and the U.S., and would be closing all of its 2,500 stores, including 248 in Canada.
In a piece for The Outline titled "Farewell to Payless and its terrible, no good, very cheap, occasionally meaningful shoes," Bernstein reflected on her own complicated relationship with the discount shoe chain, where her family shopped after her father lost his job.
For Bernstein, the now-defunct chain was a symbol for the contradictions of modern consumer capitalism.
"Payless demonstrates who the so-called 'retail apocalypse' is actually hurting. Most media coverage of the chain's demise has focused on declining revenue and on the changing whims of consumers," Bernstein wrote.
"But it's the lowest-paid workers who are truly feeling this loss. They're also the ones who need accessible brick and mortar shops. Shopping online still requires relative privilege — reliable internet, credit, a secure address, etc."
That's not to say shopping at Payless was always fun.
"Memories of Payless are a literal combination of insult and injury," Bernstein wrote, detailing how much brand name logos mattered at school, and how cruel kids could be to those who lacked the wealth to purchase those status symbols.
Her piece resonated with others who had similar life experiences.
when i was in elementary school, "you get your shoes at payless" was an absolutely devastating, nuclear-level insult that you could never recover from, but also... everyone was broke, so we all did get our shoes at payless, even the people who said that <a href="https://t.co/ZNSjewk6uN">https://t.co/ZNSjewk6uN</a>—@merrilymaralie
Payless was founded in Kansas in 1956, and was once one of the biggest shoe retailers in the world. But, by the end of May, all of the stores in the U.S. and Canada are scheduled to be closed.
About 16,000 workers will lose their jobs, including about 2,400 in Canada.
"I don't know that I mourn Payless going away particularly, but what I think I mourn is the change in the shopping experience in general and how we have so many choices and things are so cheap, but there's actually less accessibility, not more," said Bernstein.
"Thanks for the blisters, the scars on the back of my heels, and thanks for being a good lesson in how contradictory capitalism can be," she added. "Hopefully something better will come next."
To hear more from Sara Tatyana Bernstein, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.