A Conversation with Kirsten and Kevin Shorey
Anne and Jack Spiegel started Quoddy in 1947 after they fell in love with Maine during their honeymoon. The company prospered in Maine until the 1970s when the Spiegel family sold it to R.G. Barry Corporation, who later sold it to Wolverine, where the brand eventually went dormant.
The story of how Quoddy returned to Maine in the 1990s starts with a native son and his wife who decided to trade their corporate jobs near Washington DC for a better quality of life near the Passamaquoddy Bay.
How did a vice president and an editorial executive in a print company wind up making shoes in Maine?
KEVIN: We were living in Maryland, but when our boys were old enough, we started coming up to Maine for the summers. I was born in Lincoln and went to grade school in Bangor, and I still had family there. My paternal side lived in northern and central Maine, and my maternal relatives were weir fishermen on the Passamaquoddy Bay. My grandfather from Perry also owned the Quoddy Wigwam Shop for 50 years. There he sold Quoddy moccasins, as well as Taos and Katahdin Trail.
We bought a house 12 miles from the store. Kirsten came up with the kids in the summer and worked remotely. I worked in Maryland during the week and would fly up on weekends.
My grandfather said, “Why do you do that? Why don’t you just move up here?” When I said there weren’t any jobs, he said, “Well, I’ll sell you my store.” We liked the idea of it, so we bought the store from my grandfather and moved up to Maine full-time.
How did you move from selling moccasins to making them?
KEVIN: The Katahdin Trail moccasins in our store inventory had been made by a gentleman named Thomas Kennedy from Kenduskeag, north of Bangor. When Mr. Kennedy developed health problems, he could no longer make shoes for us on a regular basis. He sold his machinery to a couple in Florida who had a shoe repair business. Now a shoe repair shop is nothing at all like making shoes; they’re two completely different animals. They made some shoes for us, but they weren’t very good.
KIRSTEN: When I asked them if they were going to work at it, if their shoes were going to get better, they said, “Well, since we already have a good repair business going, and there’s just the two of us, we don’t think we’ll have the time to make shoes here after all.” So, we bought the equipment and moved it back to Maine.
KEVIN: On March 17, 1997, we went to Florida. We contracted with a trucker from Jonesboro who just delivered a load of wild blueberries from Washington County. He’d stopped to visit his mother, then was going to deadhead the trailer back home. So, we loaded up the equipment, he drove it back up to Maine, and we moved it into our barn (50 years after Jack & Anne Spiegel started).
KIRSTEN: The first thing we did after getting back home was to open up the old Quoddy catalogs. People had been asking for these shoes, but when Mr. Kennedy stopped, no one was making them. So that’s how we developed our version of Quoddy moccasins, it was a revival of those classic Maine styles.
KEVIN: Mr. Kennedy, who was doing much better by that time, was delighted that his equipment was back in Maine. He came down regularly to teach Kirsten and me how to run and care for every machine.
We started making shoes for ourselves to sell at the Wigwam under the name of Quoddy Trail. With our location near the Passamaquoddy Bay, it made sense for us to use a regional name, much like Mr. Kennedy did when he was working near Mount Katahdin.
Kirsten did the stitching and prep work, and I did the cutting and soling. We were able to recruit a few handsewers who had worked in Eastport and Lubec many years before. But every week I would drive from the Downeast coast to central Maine, picking up and dropping off shoes to handsewers in Lincoln, Burlington, Newport and other towns in between.
KIRSTEN: We made shoes in our barn up until we outgrew the space. Then we moved the operation into a motel next to the store that we were able to buy. We’d make the shoes there and walk them down Route 1 to the store next door on a shoe rack.
You also hit the fair, festival and juried-show circuit on those early days.
KEVIN: Yeah, we were proper carnies! It all started at the Grand Lake Stream Folk Art Festival in Washington County. We’d bring shoes for people to try on and sometimes we’d bring a handsewer to show people exactly how the shoes were made, and they found it fascinating. We’d trace people’s feet, take orders, then make everything when we got back to our shop.
We also participated in the National Folk Festival in Bangor and the American Folk Festival after that for a few years, as well as many juried arts and crafts shows from Maine to Virginia. Then we started getting noticed by footwear and apparel designers.
One of the first to show an interest in Quoddy was Alex Carleton of Rogue’s Gallery in Portland, who had a store in the Old Port at that time. We met him at the Common Ground Fair and collaborated with him for a bit, before he moved on to head LL Bean’s signature collection. As more people discovered us, we started working with brands like J. Crew, Sundance, and LL Bean (for whom we staffed handsewing exhibitions in the Freeport flagship store).
So that’s what the early years of Quoddy were like. It was pretty much Kirsten and me and our boys, Cal and Cameron, traveling around promoting our shoes.
How did Quoddy Trail become Quoddy?
KEVIN: In the late ‘90s, we were approached by Yuki Matsuda who was looking for a shoemaker for a line he wanted to establish. The relationship eventually developed a brand called Yuketen, which stands for Yuki, Kevin, and Kirsten. Until 2009, we continued to make shoes under both the Quoddy Trail and Yuketen brands but decided at that point to focus on Quoddy alone.
I knew the Washington DC area well. So, I went down to the US Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City, Virginia to officially book a name for us. I looked under Wigwam, but that was taken by the sock company. Then I looked under Quoddy, and it said “Dead”! [Meaning that the brand name was no longer in use, owned or protected.] After the brand was acquired by Wolverine, the trademark was abandoned. For $375, I was able to register the trademark and legally use the Quoddy name.
That was a huge boost for us because “Kevin and Kirsten’s moccasins” didn’t have the same cache or respect as Quoddy did. So that’s how we ended up becoming Quoddy and owning the trademark.
How did the relocation to Lewiston come about?
KIRSTEN: We had a real need for quality handsewing services on a more consistent basis. When we put the word out, we found four of best who still wanted to work at it in the Lewiston area. We rented a little storefront on Lisbon Street near the police station, so we could set up a weekly pick up and drop routine at a centralized location near them.
But honestly, with all the back and forth of it, knowing that we needed to grow and expand led us to look for a permanent home in Lewiston. In 2010, we moved to the Pepperell Mill where we are now. It was Cole Haan’s former space and everything we needed was already there, so we just walked in and started working.
Making the move from print and editorial careers to buying a store and making your own shoes sounds like a 180-degree turn. It’s almost like “What were you thinking?”
KIRSTEN: That’s pretty much what my mother said to me!
KEVIN: Things were going quite well for us in Maryland. While I was duly compensated, my life was not so good. I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, half of which was spent driving the Washington Beltway (or not, due to the brutal traffic).
So, we ended up moving to Maine with the confidence—perhaps false confidence—that having succeeded at some things, we could succeed at anything. Thus, came about our family motto which we use to this day: never give up.
And that’s how we got to where we are, 25 years later, when so many other people have fallen by the wayside. Maybe we were too ignorant to quit or maybe just too stubborn. It’s been very hard at times but also very rewarding.
As it turned out, you also discovered that you’re not the first Shoreys to make a living making shoes.
KEVIN: When we first started making shoes with Mr. Kennedy, I knew very little about my family’s history. I knew that my great grandfather, Harry Smith Shorey, had polio as a young man. Since he couldn’t go into the woods and lumberjack like the rest of my family, he worked at a sit-down bench where he could handsew shoes.
But I found out that his children all made shoes, and I ended up inheriting a pair that my grandparents made for my dad when he was just a baby. The shoe industry in Maine, then and to this day, is very close-knit. From working with Mr. Kennedy, I discovered that he had learned how to make shoes from my great uncle. That brought this full-circle for me.
So that’s the natural progression that I knew absolutely nothing about. I went to Columbia University and then Northwestern to study business; Kirsten went to Northwestern for music. We really didn’t expect or anticipate that our careers would one day bring us to making shoes.
But it turns out, it’s something that’s deep in my DNA.