Woolworths, Chiesmans, British Home Stores, Gamleys and now Wilko – it seems the list of shops disappearing from our ever-changing high streets is endless.
But there is one store in Maidstone that has not only survived the last 230 years, but has thrived.
The Golden Boot on your left as you look down Gabriel’s Hill, now, and in the 1900s
The Golden Boot at the bottom of Gabriel’s Hill has been owned by the same family for seven generations.
Established in 1790 and first known as Randall's Boot Warehouse, it is believed to be the oldest independent shoe shop in the country and with the recent disappearance of Whatmans in Maidstone may be the oldest surviving business in the County Town.
It was founded by William Randall, who passed it to his son, Frederick William Randall, in the mid-19th century.
The son renamed the business FW Randall & Co, which is still the official name of the company today.
It was he who installed the 6ft tall iconic golden Wellington boot to the shop’s facade that has made the store so distinctive and given it its modern name.
FW Randall had three daughters, Flora, Fanny and Henrietta, and it was Henrietta’s marriage in 1876 to Robert Martin that brought the Martin name to the business.
William and Henrietta had eight children, including Percival Martin – listed in the 1911 Census as a shoe trader – and Ernest Martin, listed as a shoemaker.
Ernest had two sons, Alan and Robert, and Robert’s son Lawrence, now the company chairman, had two sons, one of whom is the current managing director, Edward Randall Martin.
But if the store has been a constant presence in Maidstone for several hundred years, that does not mean it hasn’t changed.
Originally, the business made and sold its own shoes, with the transition to retail only coming after the First World War. The cobblers’ workshop was in Palace Yard and has since disappeared.
Starting out in just one unit in Gabriel’s Hill, the store has expanded into neighbouring properties over the years and it now takes up eight units, including what had in times gone by been the Ship Inn.
While it has remained steadfast, the area around it has changed dramatically.
The entire Len Cabinet Works furniture factory, once one of Maidstone’s biggest employers, has disappeared along with the Marston and Tubbs Brewery and the Lenworth Mill, to be replaced by The Chequers (now The Mall) shopping centre.
Edward Martin began working in the shop as a teenager. But after studying for a degree in business retail at Leeds, he went away to gain experience with Clarks in Boston in the US, and then with Charles Clinkard, a distinguished shoe retailer in Stockton in the north of England.
Returning to Maidstone, he took over the management of his company from his father Lawrence in 2005.
The expansion of the property has enabled an expansion of the retail offer, and the store now has three individual stores: men’s, women’s and children’s. There is also, unseen by the public, a large warehouse at the back that supports the firm’s growing online trade.
Around six years ago, the store diversified into clothing and now sells quality countrywear ranges such as Barbour and Schoffel.
Next year, Mr Martin is planning a big push into running shoes. The business will be sponsoring the Maidstone Harriers running club from January – and later the Maidstone Half-Marathon.
And Mr Martin confessed his big aim was to see the town hold its own full marathon.
Will there be an eighth generation of the family taking over in due course?
Mr Martin, 42, said: “Not for a while at least. My son's only five. In any case, I wouldn’t force him into the business.
“I was never pressured to join myself. The only way that family businesses survive is if you are really passionate about the business.
“It's when people drift into taking on the family business, without a real interest, that those businesses fail.”
Mr Martin said that shoe fashions could come and go, but the Golden Boot would stay firm.
He said: “In the 60s, heel shapes became very much influenced by Mary Quant and her designs.
“More recently the trainer has been the biggest influencer.
“People don’t want to wear trainers all the time, but they became accustomed to their comfort and then expected that in their other shoes.”
Reproducing the suppleness of the trainer in what is known as the “brown shoe” trade was a challenge for many producers.
Mr Martin said: “We work with very special manufacturers who can achieve the quality our customers are looking for.
“Quite a few are family-run Spanish firms who have been making shoes for generations.”
Mr Martin said he liked working with such firms because “they get us.”
He said: “Many businessmen in this country are always with one eye on selling out at the end.
“On the Continent, it’s much more common to see yourself as the custodian of the family business, ready to pass on to the next generation.”
But expertise can be costly.
The most expensive shoe in the Golden Boot currently sells at £595 a pair.
It is made by Crockett and Jones, a shoe manufacturer in Northampton that has been established since 1879.
Mr Martin said: “Some people think that’s a lot, but they would think nothing of spending £200 in a restaurant in one night.
“We recently had a pair of shoes brought back to us for repair – the owner had had them for 40 years. That would be £15 a year! Quality counts and the shoes last longer.”
He said: “The most recent trend has been towards sustainability. The manufacturers are keen to use sustainable resources and increasingly customers want to know how and where their shoe is made.”
He said: “The challenge for us and any retailer is to stay relevant.”
The Golden Boot has done that by avoiding the branded shoe route.
He said: “It’s the easiest option just to stock the popular brand of the day. We prefer to offer a range of manufacturers and give customers choice.”
But Mr Martin does admit making some mistakes along the way.
He said: “My father was a big train fan. He had the children’s department decorated like a train station with model trains running.
“Of course the children loved it. I came in with some big ideas and had it ripped out.”
A few years later, in 2019, Mr Martin had the trains quietly re-instated. Sorry Dad!
Fortunately, he was never tempted to remove the business’s iconic boot other than to have it taken down temporarily so that it could be completely refurbished in gold leaf.
But he is changing his mind in some areas. Mr Martin said: “If you had asked me 10 years ago what was the most important thing about our business, I would have said product.
“Today, I think that although the product is important, the most important thing is the staff.
“We rely on them to sell the product. And I don’t mean the insincere selling of trying to push something onto people, but being knowledgeable about the product, being able to suggest other ranges, being determined to see the customer walk away happy with their purchase.”
He said: ”Being an independent business, the job is more varied here than in the chain stores. People get to work on window dressing, or the web side as well. They have to be prepared to do a bit of everything.
“I think people like working here.”
The facts seem to prove him right, with two staff having been with the firm for 25 years, and another for 18.
He said: “Independents make a point of difference on the High Street and are still to be valued.”