Denise Allan

Lake Cowichan’s Footwear Centre welcomes new owner

From one entrepreneur to another, a torch is being passed by the owner of one of Lake Cowichan’s oldest businesses.

From one entrepreneur to another, a torch is being passed by the owner of one of Lake Cowichan’s oldest businesses.

Last week, after more than 35 years at the helm of the Footwear Centre in downtown Lake Cowichan, owner Dot Lungal finalized the sale details of the business to Denise Allan, who owned and operated the Bottle Depot until its sale and closure last month.

What will Lungal miss most?

“The people,” she said, without missing a beat.

The Footwear Centre is open from Tuesday to Saturday every week, and Lungal is reliably there, both for customers but also friends and community members who just want to drop in to say hello or chat.

“We stay here all the time, whether it’s busy or not,” she said, recalling the one exception, when her daughter was graduating. “I went home an hour early and I had a note on the door the next day that said, ‘I care. Don’t you care? I needed boots… ‘ The one time I didn’t do it. That one guy. You gotta be there every minute for them.”

Lungal has owned the business since 1979. She purchased it from friends/business partners Hazel Peterson and Helga Sundberg, who took over and renamed the store from “Shep the Shoeman,” who opened shop in 1963.

Over the years there have been many highlights and memorable occurrences, said Lungal, such as the incident 20 years ago when 250 pairs of shoes were stolen from the store.

“They bashed my back door down, they went into the washroom and got all the garbage bags… And then they took the shoes out of the boxes, and put them in the bags,” she said. Lungal had had $5,000 cash stashed in one of those shoe boxes, and she was thanking her lucky stars that was one of the few the thieves didn’t open.

“They touched the boxes on both sides of it. Cops said, ‘You shouldn’t be leaving money like that.’ I said, ‘I know. But they didn’t get it!’”

Lungal fondly remembers what it was like when Youbou Mill was still in operation. Not only did she work in its office in years gone by, but as owner of a shoe store, Lungal saw firsthand what a tremendous boon the forest industry was for local business.

“When the mill was there it was fantastic. I used to get in work boots and the men would just come in, try them on, and get them off their paycheque,” she said. “When the Walbran [protests] was happening, I sold 21 pairs of rubber boots to the cops.”

For incoming owner Denise Allan, who has never worked retail, the learning curve is steep but she’s also thrilled to take on a new challenge, especially if it means working in what is truly an institution in the Lake Cowichan business community.

Allan has no plans to change the store’s name, hours of operation or its appearance and feel. She’s aiming for a “seamless” transition in ownership. Allan, who was childhood friends with Lungal’s daughter, said the fact the store will continue to be operated by a Laker has its advantages.

“I think it’s going to be cool because I’m going to know a lot of her customers,” she said.

Prior to opening the Bottle Depot three years ago, Allan spent 10 years as owner of the Cow Cafe.

“Retail is very new to me. Carrying stock and waiting for people to buy it and still having stock, that’s something I’m not used to,” she said. “The Cow Cafe, that was easier because the food got eaten, and if there was leftover food we made it into soup or something else, always a special.”

She plans to go slow over the coming months as she gets used to the new role.

Allan closed the Bottle Depot last month simply because she received a good offer on the space and had never been wedded to the work itself. She’d set up the Bottle Depot because for Allan, being her own boss is important.

“After I sold the restaurant to opening the bottle depot, that was a five-year span where I worked for other people and it just wasn’t my thing. I wasn’t good at it,” she said, adding that Lungal has offered to provide guidance after the transition between owners.

Lungal does have business tips for Allan, such as keeping plenty of stock, but her most important piece of advice is more personal than that.

“Be honest,” she said. “If you like the shoe, then you can sell it. That’s being honest.”