‘Shoes or Else’ celebrates 20 years

Rita Fincham doesn't mind being called the Shoe Nazi. The no-nonsense owner of Shoes R Us runs a strict shop, as customers of the Main Street store are well aware.

Rita Fincham doesn’t mind being called the Shoe Nazi.

The no-nonsense owner of Shoes R Us runs a strict shop, as customers of the Main Street store are well aware.

Try to return a pair of shoes and you’re likely to have Fincham direct your eyes to a sign on the far wall: “No refunds, no exchanges and no credit notes.”

Another sign stipulates that customers are to try on no more than six pairs of shoes. And don’t even start about the store’s prices.

“This is a quality family shoe store,” states another sign. “Do not compare our products and prices to department stores.”

Fincham’s stern manners have led some to calling the establishment Shoes or Else. But she takes these jokes as compliments: So what if she’s efficient?

“That means you know your job: one-two-three, march.”

This month marks the store’s 20th anniversary. And Fincham, 72, shows no sign of slowing down.

She grew up in a German city near the Baltic Sea. It was among the first cities to be invaded by the Russians during the Second World War. Fincham was six at the time.

“We were evacuated in cattle cars,” she says. Later, they lived in a stable.

Fincham got lice. Her head was shaved.

Sometimes there was no food and no milk. “I ate grass to survive,” she says.

She moved to Bavaria after the war. At age 16, Fincham and her mother, sponsored by an uncle, immigrated to Canada. They moved to Thunder Bay.

That’s where Fincham found her first job. She worked the graveyard shift in a restaurant, peeling potatoes, washing dishes and cleaning toilets, six nights a week from midnight until 8 a.m.

One year of that was enough. She moved to Kitchener and worked in different restaurants and nightclubs.

She married twice and raised three kids by herself.

Then she decided it was time for a new life. A friend suggested moving to the Yukon.

She did. “That was 33 years ago.”

Tippy Mah hired her to manage the old T&M Hotel’s restaurant. She held the job for almost 10 years, until a doctor warned her she was working too hard.

So she took over running the old Qwanlin Shoes store in the Qwanlin mall. The store flooded during her first two springs.

Twice her merchandise was ruined. Her insurance company gave her the run-around.

“But did Rita give up?” she asks. “No. She stayed.”

Seventeen years ago, her store’s current location on Main Street opened up. The building’s owner turned out to be her old boss, Tippy Mah. He gave her the space over a long line of applicants to reward her for her hard work.

This background all helps explain why Fincham has little patience for today’s youth, coddled as they are compared her own upbringing. If they don’t like her selection, they can shop elsewhere.

Fincham prides the quality of the shoes she sells. Pajar boots are hand-made in Montreal, rated to -60 C, lined with sheepskin and heeled with tire rubber.

They’re stylish. And expensive.

A long, black pair of women’s boots sells for $395.

“You get what you pay for,” said Fincham.

“They don’t cost cheap for me, either. You think they cost me peanuts? No.”

She also sells purses made from good Italian leather, warm slippers with no-slip rubber heels and Isotoner gloves.

She speaks with disdain of the shoe selection offered by Whitehorse’s big-box stores.

“I know what Yukoners need,” she said. “I don’t buy that stuff people wear in Vancouver.”

Some store fixtures, having been brought over from the previous Qwanlin store, are familiar to long-time Whitehorse residents. She pats a circular bench upholstered with red leather.

“This seat here is 40 years old,” she says. “Three generations have been raised on this seat.”

Then there’s the glossy black baby’s dress shoe that sits on the cash register. It was brought into Fincham’s store 17 years ago by someone who found it after it slipped off a girl’s foot. It was never claimed.

Four years ago, a young woman walked into the store, stared at the baby shoe, and asked, “Is that ….”

That’s as far as she got. “I said, yeah, that’s the one,” said Fincham.

She knew the woman, now grown, must have once been the child who lost her shoe.

Fincham isn’t ready to give the shoe up. “It brings me good luck,” she said.

“When we close, you’ll get it back,” Fincham told the woman. “She said, ‘Then my granddaughter will wear it.’”

Why does Fincham still work? Why wouldn’t she?

“What would I do retired?” she asks. “I’d be so bored. I’d get all fat and lazy.”

Her typical response, when asked by a customer when she will retire, is “when you find me dead here on the floor.”

Contact John Thompson at