Few businesses can claim a heritage quite as long as the Bail family’s five-generation relationship with the shoe industry. But more than just a long history of selling shoes, the Bail family’s story is one of resilience.
One generation after another has adapted to local needs, market trends and economic vicissitudes—from the boot soles crafted by French-Canadian patriarch Napoleon Bail to the custom-made shoes and orthotic devices made five generations later by Chris Bail, CPed, and his daughter, Laura Bail, CPed.
“Around 1890, my great-grandfather, Napoleon Bail, emigrated from Canada to the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts,” said current proprietor Chris Bail. “He spoke no English but wanted a way to support his family. So he set up a cobbler shop near a railroad transfer station. In exchange for his work, he would ask his customers to read him local newspapers and translate the content into French.”
The Canadian immigrant’s son, Chris Bail’s grandfather, took the company’s shoe repair business, which by that time included selling shoes as well, to its next iteration when he graduated in 1924 from the American School of Practipedics in Chicago, where he studied under footwear icon William M. Scholl, MD. That clinical emphasis has been with the Bails ever since.
Chris Bail’s father, Oscar, brought to the company not only the technical expertise he’d absorbed from his own father but also the business skills he’d learned in college. At the time, that dual skill set seemed ample for continuing to build a shoe retail business. But, in 1964, Oscar Bail attended a sales convention and was invited to undergo certification as a pedorthist. The shop became a key player in the newly emerging pedorthics movement.
“I started with gaining an understanding of how a shoe was made. Then my father began teaching me to fit shoes,” he said.
Around 2000, just as Oscar Bail made the decision to retire, the economy in the Pioneer Valley became precarious, and businesses of all kinds had to adapt quickly or risk failing. Chris Bail saw that the retail side of his business might be a necessary casualty.
“We were doing so much more in the pedorthic business than the retail business that I wasn’t really interested in selling shoes conventionally anymore,” he recalled.
What interested him most at that time was crafting foot orthoses. But he lacked the necessary certification. Contemplating the pros and cons of more training, Chris found motivation from an unexpected source: His daughter Laura, barely in her twenties at the time, said she would attend pedorthic certification training with him.
Father and daughter, upon completing 120 hours of coursework, rebranded their new business as Bail’s Custom Footcare and worked out of a podiatry practice for two years before establishing their own office, this time in South Hadley, MA.
They both split their time between appointment days, when they may see as many as 25 scheduled customers, and lab days, when they do the hands-on crafting of shoe modifications, orthotic devices, and other foot health accessories.
“Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t call us or send a thank you note saying we helped them,” Bail said. “The very best thing for us is a personal referral from a satisfied customer. We get physician referrals all the time, and that’s really helpful. But if someone tells a friend, ‘I went to see Laura and Chris, and they asked questions and figured out what would work for me,’ that’s our greatest form of success.”
Nancy Shohet West is a freelance writer in the Boston area..