Day 6

So long and thanks for all the blisters: A bittersweet eulogy for Payless shoes

As Payless ShoeSource closes all its North American stores, former customer Sara Tatyana Bernstein reflects on what the chain represented for low-income families like hers.

Payless embodied the worst excesses of capitalism while giving choice to low-income people, says writer

Sara Tatyana Bernstein had mixed feelings when she heard that Payless ShoeSource was closing all of its stores in North America, so she wrote a eulogy to the discount shoe chain. (Submitted by Sara Tatyana Bernstein)

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."

A woman looks to buy shoes at Payless ShoeSource for a new job. The shoe company has filed for creditor protection and is closing all of its stores in Canada and the United States. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

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." 

Sara Tatyana Bernstein, left, with a friend. Bernstein is wearing a pair of boots she found in Grade 11 at Payless, which she described as "perfectly clunky black leather lug-soled extra-small men’s work shoes that fit perfectly." (Submitted by Sara Tatyana Bernstein)

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. 

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.