The boot-fitting guru of Colorado talks about how he got into the business and how he finds like-minded employees.
Born and raised on a homestead in northern Montana where he could ski right out of his back door, Larry Houchen fell into boot fitting because the shop he was working at in Denver was having a sale and they needed more help getting people into boots. This was in 1979. Plastic ski boots were only 10 years old and Larry noticed two very important things while working four days straight in the boot department. First, being out with customers and interacting with them was more fun than unboxing incoming shipments in the back of the house, and, second, the other boot fitters knew about as much as he did—practically nothing. They were all learning as they went.
Houchen wanted to learn more about how to help people find the right fit. While in graduate school for business in Denver, his elective courses included kinesiology, anatomy, and biomechanics so that he could learn as much as possible about movement and feet, and how they relate to boots and skiing.
I sat down with Larry in his famed, intimate shop, Larry’s Bootfitting (larrysboootfitting.com), on Folsom St. in Boulder, Colorado, to learn more about him and how his name became synonymous with the perfect ski boot fit.
What else did you do beyond the elective courses you took in graduate school to further your knowledge about footwear?
I heard about a guy named Roberto LaRosa (then known as Bob Rose) at Colorado Boot and Shield. They built a whole variety and array of footwear oriented towards being active in the outdoors including leather hiking boots and leather telemark boots—they were really on top of it. I’d take a bottle of wine over to their shop and ask if we could talk. They finally relented and I ended up learning a lot from guys like Hans Woodman and Bob Rose. Then I went to the Northwest Podiatric Laboratories in Blaine, Washington where I met Dr. Chris Smith, Dennis Brown, and Sven Coomer. I spent a couple summers with them learning how to grind orthotics, read prescriptions, and find out more about feet. It was insane that a guy like me who didn’t have any practical podiatric experience spent so much time up there with these men who had dedicated their lives around taking care of people’s feet. It was awesome. An incredible experience. These were the people who ended up starting Superfeet, the insole company.
How did you end up getting your own boot fitting shop?
Through the ’80s and into the ‘90s, I worked at various shops as a manager, hardgoods buyer, and bootfitter in Denver and Boulder. Each time one of those shops sold to a corporation, I moved on. Finally, someone said to me, “Hey stupid, if you want to work for a shop that’s not owned by a corporation, you should start your own because no corporation will buy you.” And I took that as a compliment and started this shop in 2003.
Any story behind naming your shop?
My wife at the time reminded me that while I was working at other shops, people looking to have their boots fitted would walk in and say, “Where’s Larry?” So, I tried to name my shop “Where’s Larry?” But someone already owned that name so I wrote him a letter offering to take care of all his boot-fitting needs if he’d let me use the name. Well, I got a letter back and this Larry wasn’t much into skiing, more into sailing. It was Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle. But, that’s why there’s a question mark in the footprint in the logo we use now—to represent that original question: Where’s Larry? But really, all I had to sell was my name and reputation so we went with Larry’s Bootfitting.
How would you describe the philosophy of your shop?
You can find any of this stuff in a myriad of locations, but what we have to sell is time—time to talk about skiing. We want the experience here to be like going into somebody’s living room and asking questions so they continue learning and sharing about skiing. I like having people around me who remind me every day that skiing is fun. The folks who work here are the ones who camp out knowing snow is coming in—”I was up in the dark to go skiing this morning.”
I never thought of myself as an employee, even when working at other shops. I was just doing my work. And now as a shop owner, I’ve never thought of the people that work with me as employees—they’re my co-workers. The only difference is they haven’t been doing this for 40 years.
Hiring is usually through the process of someone coming in regularly to learn about boot fitting and they have to be into it. If they show they can work well as part of the team, they get invited to join us for a clinic and we get to know them even better. I care about everyone who works here like family and we all have the same goal: to do the best job possible for each customer. We check each other’s work, we learn from each other and the whole team is part of a huge range of decisions about this shop. I even close the shop for the industry trade show that happens in Denver so we as a team can go and check things out.
Larry’s Bootfitting will be open by appointment only this season due to COVID-19 precautions.
Cover Photo: Larry Houchen lives for one thing—finding the perfect fit. And He’s been doing just that from his humble shop in boulder since 2003. Photo courtesy Larry Houchen