COMES NATURALLY #121
Spectator Magazine -- April 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg
One fine spring day in 1997, Hank Wolny -- like thousands of other sightseers -- found himself strolling along legendary, star-studded Hollywood Boulevard, not far from the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Heading west from Frederick's of Hollywood, Hank noticed a store that was exclusively devoted to selling fetish footwear. A block further along, there was another store selling exactly the same thing, then another, then another.
"I must have passed six stores selling nothing but fetish shoes inside of five blocks," he explains, wide-eyed.
I listen to him as I slip my feet into a pair of pumps with nothing less than five inch spike heels, and no platform for compensation. They're the most tipped-up shoes in Wolny's San Francisco fetish shoe store and I want to experience what it's like to walk in them. Wolny is only slightly watching me as I buckle the straps and contemplate standing up. Mostly he's engrossed in telling me the story of how he got into the fetish footwear business.
"I said to myself, 'Now, that would be fun -- selling outrageous shoes like that.' When I saw that one of the stores sold wholesale I decided to buy a variety of shoes and sell them in San Francisco at the Folsom Street Fair. I was thinking that, if everything went well, I could sell shoes at four or five fetish fairs each year. I was 56 years old and had been retired for two years. I was looking for something interesting to do with my life. I figured thay slowly around Wolny's Sutter Street store -- appropriately called Foot Worship. Now, I can't claim that I wear heels every day -- or every month for that matter. But I do enjoy the way that putting on heels stretches the backs of my legs and sticks my butt up in the air, and I've spent enough time, at parties and other special occasions, in my very own pair of shiny black 4" pumps with scalloped edges that I've gotten pretty competent at negotiating stairs, curbs, and hills in them. I can even deal with street gratings and trolley tracks if I pay attention to where I'm putting my feet.
But these 5" heels are something else again. Who'd have thought that one measly inch would make such a difference? Unable to keep my center of gravity over my butt, I find that, despite my best efforts to stand in one place, I keep falling forward, as if a gust of wind were steadily pushing me from behind. I take a step forward, then another, then another, only gradually realizing that I can't seem to stop. The realization gives me kind of a low-grade feeling of vertigo -- like discovering that the brakes have gone out on your car, minus the fear of dying. I resolve my perpetual motion and loss-of-control anxiety by falling, as gracefully as I can, back into the chair from whence I so recklessly arose.
Wolny watches my balance drama without so much as cracking a smile or missing a beat in his story. He's seen hundreds of teetering ingenues in the four years that Foot Worship has been open for business. Presumably he's got good insurance in case someone falls.
"I thought I'd be appealing to the fetish market," Wolny continues, as my mind climbs out of my feet to the point that I can pay better attention to his words. "But all day long I was selling shoes to dancers who work at strip and lap-dancing clubs around town. I sold 35 pair of shoes that day and realized I could make a successful business out of this. I researched the dancer market and found that there are some 2000 exotic dancers that work at the various clubs every month. New people are coming to town all the time, staying in San Francisco for a while before moving on. And they all want shoes like these."
Wolny opened Foot Worship in January, 1998. Located three blocks from the Mitchell Brothers O' Farrell Theater, spitting distance from the main stroll for heterosexual and transsexual streetwalkers alike, and a few doors from gay-oriented Polk Street, it's the perfect location for all of Wolny's diverse clientele. He rents the indoor balcony that overlooks his ground level store to Felicity's Fetiche, a boutique run by an ex-dancer that sells lingerie, stage costumes, and women's fetish wear. The two stores, dubbed Best Double Decker Fetish Store by San Francisco's Bay Guardian, maintain a perfectly symbiotic relationship. People who come for shoes take note of Felicity's frillies, and the dancers who come to Felicity looking for costumes learn about Wolny's shoes as well.
Wolny's first promotional act after opening his store was to print flyers offering 10% discounts to dancers and have them posted in the dressing rooms of all the lap dancing and strip clubs around town. He was quickly inundated with dancers hungry for his 6", 7", and most recently 7-1/2" platform shoes, as well as the knee-high and thigh-high boots that round out his inventory. Wolny, who has over 1700 pair of shoes in stock, sells some 70 pair a week, a steady year-round business that peaks around Halloween and surprisingly dips during the Christmas season.
"No one gives shoes for Christmas," Wolny notes wryly. "I think I sold maybe twenty pair of gift shoes all last season."
About 60% of Wolny's customers are dancers. Cross-dressers account for an additional 25%. The fetish people that Wolny originally thought would be his main clientele account for only about 15% of his business. His best-seller is a "clear-on-clear" opened-toed shoe with a clear plastic 6" spike heel and vamp, supported by a 2" clear plastic platform. "People love clear," Wolny says, "because it goes with everything and it also fulfills everyone's Cinderella fantasy. It's a chance to have your very own magical glass slipper."
After the 6" heel with the 2" platform, Wolny's next most popular model is a 5" heel with no platform -- the very shoe that just propelled me so insistently around his store. I think about dancers wearing those shoes on stage, taking off their clothes, and moving around with seductive sensuous grace, all at the same time. My respect for their art takes a significant leap forward. On the other hand, I think competitively, it's not like they have to stand still in them.
According to Wolny, the trend in fetish footwear runs ever higher and taller. Two years ago 7" heels with 3" platforms came out for the first time. This year it's 7-1/2" heels with a 4" platform. "I guess the sky's the limit," Wolny shrugs. "Pretty soon people will be walking around seven feet tall."
Wolny, who grew up in small towns in Northern California and was an accountant for most of his life (including a stint with infamous Arthur Andersen), is delighted to have stumbled into a business that's as much fun as this one. In a city like San Francisco, it puts him in contact with a never-ending stream of interesting characters and customers.
"There's one 78-year-old man who buys one or two pair of shoes every month, year after year. One time he picked out a shoe that he had just bought, four months earlier. When I pointed out that he already had that shoe, he shot me an indignant look.
"'They wear out, you know,' he said archly.
"Another customer in the store was bemoaning the fact that he was a size six while this guy was a size eight.
"'If we were the same size, I could have all your shoes after you die.'
"'Oh no, honey,' the old man said, 'they're all going into the box with me when I go.'"
One of Wolny's youngest customers was a 9-year-old girl visiting from Washington, D.C., who came in to shop with her dad. The girl wanted the new 7-1/2" heels, but her dad was pushing for her to get the more practical (!) 6" heels instead. "But dad," the girl complained "they don't have these [7-1/2" heels] back home!" In the end, the girl got her 7-1/2" skyscrapers.
An even younger potential customer was a 5-year-old girl whose wealthy mother wanted to know if Wolny could have fetish shoes custom made in her daughter's tiny size. As it turns out, he could not -- none of his suppliers had molds that small.
Wolny does a little advertising and has been publicized on the Playboy channel, on television in England, and even in the Virgin Airlines travel magazine, but most of his new business comes directly from word of mouth. People appreciate his low-key demeanor and the fact that he makes everyone feel welcome at his store. There are no sideways glances at Foot Worship, whether it be for suburban women and teenagers trying on the sluttiest pumps, or cross-dressers looking to go all out in the footwear department.
"I can't tell you how many guys come in here saying it's their first time in heels who then turn out to be the most graceful walkers you've ever seen," Wolny notes.
Wolny emphasizes that he's always listening to his customers' concerns and tries to provide them with whatever it is they may want. Once he got an emergency call from a dancer at the O'Farrell Theater who had broken a shoe and needed a replacement right away. He ran up the street to deliver the new shoes to her on the spot. Sympathetic to the precariousness of stumbling teeterers like myself, he invented the "Stiletto Stabilizer," an expanded rubber heel that slips over narrow stilettos, increasing contact with the ground by four and a half times over the standard stiletto tip. He also sells friction pads that can be stuck to the slippery soles of shoes, increasing precious stability when walking on smooth surfaces.
Wolny is happy to have shoes made to order and has put together everything from boots and shoes made of hemp fiber to what he laughingly calls "some of the ugliest shoes I've ever seen." He's sold shoes to socialites whose designer gowns for the opening of the San Francisco Ballet were too long for conventional heels, and to high school girls who had the same problem with their prom dresses. His shoes contribute significantly to the appeal of scores of neighborhood streetwalkers, as well as to that of at least one woman who works the streets as a police decoy.
I ask Wolny if he's got any advice for people who are learning their way into wearing high altitude shoes.
"I tell people to practice walking with a vacuum cleaner," he answers. "You can use the vacuum cleaner hose to get a kind of tripod effect. Kind of like those training wheels you used when you were first riding a bicycle. As you get more comfortable with the shoes, you can put less and less weight on the vacuum hose until you're ready to stand on your own."
I consider buying the 5" perpetual motion shoes, or maybe a pair of more comfortable 6" heels with 2" platforms, but in the end I stick with my familiar 4" scalloped pumps. Maybe sometime soon I'll be ready to graduate into the big time. If so, I'll definitely be back at Wolny's door.
Pumps sell for $29-109. Platform shoes are $49-109, knee-high boots $69-169, and thigh-highs $209-279. Foot Worship, "the ultimate fetish footwear experience," is located at 1214 Sutter Street, between Polk and Van Ness (415-921-FOOT). Store hours are 11-7, Monday through Saturday (Sundays, too, from June through October).
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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