I met Laura Lee 24 years ago when she was 19 years old. I was captivated by her name—one that seems suited to a line of specialty dairy products—perhaps yogurts and cheeses—some type of creamery to reflect her wholesome sweetness. From our very first meeting, I could tell she is a person who leads from the heart.
Similar to my previous interviewees, Laura grew up here, but unlike them she never had the urge to leave. “I’m a small town kid and love it here.”
Our friendship grew along with my son’s obsession with shoes. Laura had recently graduated from high school and worked at Feet First on Main Street. By the age of seven Harrison was a dedicated Nike fan who could spend upwards of a half hour at that store examining the sports shoe inventory.
Whenever a Nike catalog came out, Laura would bring it from the back room. “Look what I have,” she’d say with a delighted grin. Harrison would stretch his arms towards her, hands trembling like a knight being gifted the Holy Grail. With the catalog in his possession, he’d stumble into a chair, savoring each page as if it contained a piece of the puzzle to the meaning of life. Laura stood aside, basking in the joy she bestowed upon him.
I silently groaned, knowing this meant at least an hour in the store. Laura would often encourage me to leave him while I ran a few errands.
Since then, Laura has married, had a son (who will graduate from high school this spring), and in 2007 purchased Feet First.
Laura is sometimes astonished that she’s worked at Feet First for over 20 years. “It’s given me a chance to build cherished friendships. I’ve met a lot of people in our community and returning visitors. One of my favorite parts is watching the kids grow up. There are kids I’ve known since I helped tie their shoes who now bring their own children into the store.”
Like most businesses, Feet First has changed over the years. “I remember when athletic shoes were mostly white with a little color pop. Now it’s all about the colors. Right now, leisure shoes are taking on a look inspired by athletic shoes. When the [Georgia Pacific] mill was open, work boot sales were steady. We still sell them, but hiking boots are more popular among men.”
The growth of internet shopping has affected Feet First, but hasn’t caused a major decline in sales. “I would like to think our personal, friendly service keeps customers coming back. People tend to want to try on shoes before buying. The other day a customer said, ‘I can’t remember the last time a salesperson brought shoes out for me.’ We often have tourists come in and each member of the family will find a shoe they like. You don’t find that in cities where stores tend to focus on a particular customer like women’s shoes or athletic shoes.”
Central to Laura’s life is sharing. She adores her husband and son and spends as much time with them as possible. She also loves cooking and posting recipes on Facebook. “For the longest time, I’d only share the healthy stuff, but I realized sometimes I don’t want to eat that. Sometimes I want to have cheese stuffed bacon burgers and share that with others.”
Recently, she’s started calling friends and arranging gatherings. “You know how it is when you run into people and say ‘We have to get together soon’ and you never do? Well, I’m telling people, ‘Now’s the time.’ When the weather improves, I’m going to invite people to bonfires at the beach after work.”
Laura makes a conscious effort to create a good, satisfying life for herself and her family. She’s decided to make this the best year yet. “I’m adding healthier changes to my routine, like walking on my treadmill a half hour each day. A few weeks ago, I didn’t feel like doing it. When I got into bed that night, I felt guilty, got up and did it.
“I’ve stopped worrying about my weight—it’s just a number; it doesn’t define me. As a result, I’m enjoying life more. It’s not about what I don’t have, it’s about what I do I have. What do I want to keep? What do I want to get rid of?”
Helping her with this process is “Fly Lady,” an online program that offers tips on how to organize your home. Laura lights up with excitement when talking about this. “Fly Lady helps me realize I can do a little bit every day to organize my life and feel in control. For example, when I recently cleaned out a drawer in my bathroom, I found a bunch of lotion samples. Why was I keeping these when I never used them? Since then I’ve become a daily user of lotions.”
When asked why she’s making these changes now, she said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m 43. I love my life, but know I can do things to enjoy it more.”
Laura and Don work six days a week and make the most of their Sundays off. “We sometimes do short trips, but otherwise spend time with friends and family. We don’t mind only taking one day off each week because we feel our business and customers are part of our family, and we don’t feel the need to get away from them.”
Laura hopes Fort Bragg will continue to encourage and embrace tourism. “I’m proud that tourists choose my hometown as a place to celebrate a special event—to get engaged, married, go on a honeymoon, or take their family vacation.
“I love living here and love my customers. I hope Don and I are able to be part of our downtown business community for many years to come.”