Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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If the shoe fits, how much will you pay for it?

SPENDY CHIC: A Spanish designer named Chie Mihara created this $478 pair of shoes. Her Tern held a sale preview party Sept. 16, 2010, for its best customers -- those who really like high end shoes. (ANNE RAUP / Anchorage Daily News)SPENDY CHIC: A Spanish designer named Chie Mihara created this $478 pair of shoes. Her Tern held a sale preview party Sept. 16, 2010, for its best customers -- those who really like high end shoes. (ANNE RAUP / Anchorage Daily News)

(Read some Alaska men responding to this column with their own (not so glam) shoe stories.)

What does it feel like to slip your foot into a $478 pair of shoes?

For me, at first, it was a little intimidating. Trying on these shoes -- cherry-red suede booties with four-inch heels made by a Spanish designer named Chie Mihara-- required removing my clogs and argyle socks to reveal the scratched paint on my toenails in the middle of Her Tern, where women are, as a rule, very put together.

But once my foot slipped inside, where the soft leather cradled it, I forgot all that. My toes nestled into a squishy foot pad. I stood up but I didn't have that pinchy, high-heel feeling. The shoe felt solid, yet light. I looked at my feet in the mirror. So stylish and demure! Then I looked at the rest of my body, balanced atop the shoes. It became clear that to pull off a pair of shoes like that, I would definitely need a makeover. And maybe possibly a completely different life.

Which made me curious: Just who are the women who can pull off shoes like these here in Anchorage?

Before the sale, I talked to Her Tern's two staffers, Ashley Munson, the shop's "Supreme Princess of Purchasing," and Brett Ricker, whose business card reads, "Style Virtuoso." It would seem that the high-end shoe business might take a hit because of the economy. They told me that a year ago they anticipated that sales would slow, so they pared down their inventory to the shoes that really sell. And those were more expensive, designer brands.

"Franco Sarto, Kenneth Cole Reaction," Ricker said, naming moderately priced shoe brands the store used to carry. "They weren't doing anything for us except for sitting on the shelf and being inexpensive."

The decision to go high-end paid off. Her Tern maintained sales goals through a rough year and didn't have to deal with extra inventory, Ricker said. Their customers may have been slightly more cautious but they were still shopping.

Her Tern shoppers are looking first for style and comfort, and they are willing to pay to find it, Munson and Ricker said. They want something singular and fashion-forward, something they can't find at Nordstrom. The store carries only 12 pairs of each shoe at the most, which makes each pair hyper-unique in a city like Anchorage.

I returned to the store later to meet the shoe collectors. It was an exclusive sale preview for a list of Her Tern's 32 "Very Important Customers," women who are very, very serious about shoes. How serious? These shoes run $150 to $700. Some of these shoe shoppers have dropped and will drop a mortgage payment in two pairs of pumps.

"This is essentially like their little drug," Munson told me.

Just after 5 p.m., women milled among the boxes, nibbling cheese and sipping sparkling wine. The shoes ranged from smooth, thick-heeled leather boots to featherweight, candy-apple-red, patent-leather pumps with an ice-pick-thin heel.

Kristen Spahl, a nurse, eyed a supple pair of smoke-colored Frye boots. Originally they were in the neighborhood of $400; the sale brought them closer to $300. She offered them to me so I could feel the leather.

"Once you get a good, quality shoe and you wear it ... you realize, 'Gosh, I spent $300 on that but I've had it for five years,' " she said.

A FIT: Anne Southam tries on shoes at Her Tern's shoe sale. (ANNE RAUP / Anchorage Daily News)A FIT: Anne Southam tries on shoes at Her Tern's shoe sale. (ANNE RAUP / Anchorage Daily News)

One of the store's best customers is Jazz Fajardo, also a nurse. She will wear the red Chie Miharas I tried on in her wedding this fall.

"I love my shoes better than my Vera Wang dress," she said.

She estimated she has 60 pairs of fancy shoes, stored in plastic "shoe garages," and then maybe eight pairs of boots. In the winter she only wears the shoes inside. The most she's ever spent? More than $600 for a fierce pair of boots. Shoes, to her, are like rare sculptures. And she is an art collector.

"I could put them out in the middle of the dining table," she said. "I could decorate with them."

Certainly shoe collecting can be expensive, but is it more expensive than her fiance's surfing hobby? Likely not. She tries not to let it get out of hand.

"I still save in my 401K," she said.

In my shoe-buyer psychology research, I also visited ShuzyQ, another boutique shoe store a few blocks from Her Tern, catering to "women who love shoes beyond reason." ShuzyQ has slightly lower prices and lower heels but a similar following. It's located near the restrooms for the Glacier BrewHouse; "bathroom traffic" brings them a significant amount of business. On occasion, someone will even make a purchase and wear the shoes back to the table.

Courtney Carlson, one of the store's "Shoenistas," told me a shoe was like a secret message to the world. Women learn about one another by checking each other's shoes.

"It's very revealing," she said. "It's very personal."

The floor manager, Debbie Spencer, started working for the store because if she hadn't, she would have had to move in, she said. Shoe purchases were eating into the rent money. She owns more than 70 pairs of shoes.

"I say the shoes whisper to me," she said.

Her favorite shoe, the first high-end shoe she ever bought, is a $245 red John Fluevog mary jane. The red shoe is her trademark, she explained, like an exclamation point at the bottom of an outfit.

"I have 30 pairs of red shoes, because that's where I pop," she said.

Back at Her Tern, I watched Audrey Dunn, a former Nordstrom saleswoman who now sells replacement windows, try on the candy-apple-red, ice-pick heels. Dunn asked if I was buying anything. I said I didn't need any shoes, though I couldn't stop staring at hers, which looked almost edible and happened to be available in my size.

"You always have to buy when you don't need," she said. "That's how you get something you really like."

Luckily, I'd left my purse in the car.

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