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Running-shoe shop in Davis goes extra mile for customers

He can't explain why from an early age he was fascinated by the look and feel of a new pair of shoes and how they were made.

"I've always been kind of a shoe junky," says Dennis DeBoer, 59, owner of DeBoer's Running Store in Bountiful since 1979. "They smell good, too."

You can hear a smile in DeBoer's tone when he greets you in his modest Main Street shop. And the volume is such that you're not sure at first if he's talking to you.

By the time you answer, he's already noticed a few things about you — height, weight, the way you hold yourself. He's not your average salesman.

While you're in DeBoer's, people from all along the Wasatch Front stop in and call Dennis by his first name. He answers back using their names. And his focus is right back on you.

When he sees your foot out of its shoe for the first time, he notices its shape. And he can look at the shoe and see signs of wear in certain places that tell a story about how you walk or run. Heel striker. Pronator. Supinator.

He knows about molded EVA, a shoe's last (curved or straight), outsole, midsole, upper, blown rubber, motion control devices, a shoe's weight to the ounce and its various lacing options. He knows because most of his customers don't.

"Dennis is extremely informed on shoes, and he knows what the runners need," said ultra-runner Irv Nielsen, who runs and helps plan 100-mile races.

Shoes are a vital part of Nielsen's life, and he'll drive from Sandy to Bountiful to get them because Dennis cares. "And that's a rare commodity these days when service takes a back door to everything else."

It helps that DeBoer is a runner. He's slowed since his marathon best of 3 hours, 38 minutes, back in his 30s. "Now the race is to get there before they take the clock down."

He'd try ultra-running, but DeBoer says he can't afford the surgery to remove the logical thinking part of his brain. The dozens of ultra-runner regulars at his store love that zinger.

His talent isn't running — he'll be the first to admit it. Rather, it's with people. His unassuming approach. His ability to talk at the level of beginners and the most hard-core runners. It's kind of like having TV's Andy Griffith sell you a pair of shoes. No pressure.

He'll even turn you on to a cheaper pair if it's the same as a more expensive model. It's about creating customer loyalty, more meaningful than a one-time sale.

"My general attitude is that for most people there aren't any shoes over $100 that are worth it," he said.

That's the kind of attitude that's helped him stay in business where other chains have failed. One competitor lasted only four months. DeBoer's secret? "It's trying to see it from their perspective." It's all about the runners. Running shoes. Running clothes. Running accessories. Running advice.

And he's riding the wave of what he calls a running "boom," coming off his best January and February ever.

Oh, he's not getting rich, but it's a comfortable living, working Tuesdays through Saturdays, usually as the lone employee.

"Yeah, it's OK," he said. "It's better than working for someone else, doing work I don't like, even if I were making more money."