SPRING HILL — Scores of stores across Hernando County sell shoes, says Joshua Hnilica. Among them, a small independent shoe store is tucked into an eight-unit strip plaza, nearly hidden behind a skyline of signs along Spring Hill Drive. This store has not only survived, but this month also celebrates its 10th anniversary.
"It's the quality of our footwear," said Hnilica, 26, manager of Shoe Comfort II.
His father, John Hnilica, is the owner and operator of Ed's Shoe Repair, a Port Richey institution where the family has sold and repaired shoes for 36 years. Joshua's grandfather founded the business when he learned the cobbler's trade in the 1950s.
With its three-generation history, the family knows quality and comfort make a perfect pair of shoes.
"I don't carry a product unless I try it myself," Joshua Hnilica said, "or someone I trust, usually my mother, and she's the hardest person in the world to fit."
Shoe Comfort II stocks fewer than a dozen brands of shoes, manufacturers the Hnilicas know well for their solid materials and detailed construction techniques.
For instance, Naot women's shoes ($90 to $150) are handmade individually in Israel, their sandals with a natural cork insole that molds to the owner's feet.
"So, it's almost like buying an orthopedic shoe," Hnilica said.
The shop carries only U.S.-made New Balance athletic shoes. Its top-of-the-line is the NB 1540 ($150), "one of the best shoes New Balance has ever produced, and it can be repaired," he said.
The New Balance 847 V2 women's athletic shoe ($125) is the store's No. 1 seller among all brands and styles. It's a "medical-grade walking shoe," the result of seven iterations. "It's not only very comfortable, but it's cute," Hnilica said of the snappy white model trimmed in pastel blue.
Otherwise, he acknowledged, some of the best-built shoes look a bit, well, clunky.
"Style is an afterthought," he said.
A shoe's higher purpose is to secure foot health. Many of the shop's customers make their first visit on the recommendation of a doctor.
"We work with doctors to see their needs, and we can adjust our stock accordingly," Hnilica said.
Whether a sandal, casual or dress shoe, every model offers arch support, "which everybody needs," Hnilica emphasized.
To determine fit, Hnilica brandishes the Brannock device, the standard measuring device for the footwear industry since 1926.
"It's an old-school kind of thing," he said, "but a great starting point."
With the customer then shod according to Brannock readings, Hnilica presses thumb to shoe toe, with his hand spanning the instep, feeling for appropriate roominess. He learned the advisable degree "from 16 years of my dad looking over my shoulder and telling me no, that's not the way to do it." Personal preference plays a role, too, he said. Some people want a tight shoe; others prefer a softer fit.
The shop's customers are generally older, those who grew up with a foot on the Brannock. Many come with a recommendation from a podiatrist; others learned of the shop via word from satisfied clients. Some respond to the sign "Shoe Repairs," which are performed at the Port Richey location.
Even if a shopper fails to make a purchase, the person leaves with an education on shoe fitting and perhaps a handout on foot fitness.
Said Hnilica: "I try to help every person who comes through the door. That's why I love my job."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]