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Experienced shoe sellers eager to open Duluth location

Family-owned Bender's Shoes has been going strong in downtown Hibbing and Grand Rapids for years. But when Richard N's Shoes closed at Duluth's Miller Hill Mall about a year ago, Bender's Shoes owner Craig Bender saw an opportunity in Duluth. "We...

Miller Hill development
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Family-owned Bender's Shoes has been going strong in downtown Hibbing and Grand Rapids for years.

But when Richard N's Shoes closed at Duluth's Miller Hill Mall about a year ago, Bender's Shoes owner Craig Bender saw an opportunity in Duluth.

"We thought there were unmet needs in what we carry and the customer service we provide," he said.

He started talking with Chuck Morris, the longtime manager of Richard N's, about opening a store in Duluth.

"They carried a lot of the product we will carry," Bender said of Richard N's Shoes. "And then, with Chuck's background in the shoe business, we were able to find the right spot."

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That came when the June flood filled the building at 2116 Maple Grove Road with 2 feet of water, driving tenant Verizon Wireless out.

"The visibility is just tremendous, being close to the mall," Bender said of the site just off Miller Trunk Highway. "The mall has really good traffic. And it has 20 parking spots. We don't have to compete with somebody else for parking on a busy street. They can pull up right up to the door."

As a result, Bender's Shoes & More will open in the refurbished building on Friday, with Morris serving as the new store's operations manager.

"We're excited about the opportunity to come to Duluth," Bender said.

The store is next to the old Ground Round building, which is the future site of a new retail complex.

"Ideally, we would have opened at the same time, but we couldn't wait for their plans to come together," Bender said. "But to see the site developed will be very advantageous for us."

His limited liability company, Bender Property LLC, purchased the 4,000-square-foot building for $705,000 in a deal that closed Dec. 7.

The space was gutted, insulation replaced and new sheetrock, walls, flooring and electrical wiring and heating ducts installed.

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"When it gets wet, everything has to be replaced," Bender explained.

Much of the work was done by Bender and his brother, Brian, who served as general contractor.

All totaled, Bender has invested more than $1 million in the startup, including the building purchase and renovations.

The other Bender's Shoes stores are full-service family shoe stores also offering clothing and accessories. The smaller Duluth store will also be full service, but just carry men's and women's shoes, with an emphasis on casual, comfort, outdoors and athletic shoes. It will also carry accessories such as purses, socks and orthopedic aids but not clothes.

"In Duluth, there seems to be more of a need of men's and women's footwear," Bender said. "We thought we wouldn't have room for clothing and kids' shoes."

Prices will range from $50 for sandals to $200 for some boots. Bender's carries numerous brands, but its five top-sellers are Dansko, New Balance, Merrell, Keen and SAS.

"I can't wait to get open," Bender said. "It's going to be a pretty cool store."

Improvements to the building's exterior, however, will have to wait for warmer weather. Plans are for some painting, stonework and new signage.

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"That can't happen until the tundra thaws," he said.

Bender's shoes location
Bender's Shoes & More is scheduled to open in the former Verizon building at Maple Grove Road and Mall Drive on Friday. Renovations of the interior are nearing completion, while the exterior will be refurbished this spring or summer with some painting, stonework and new signage. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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