A thin layer of white dust coats the well-used equipment in the second-floor workshop of Best-Made Shoes in Bloomfield.
Modern technology has made inroads into the shop's custom shoe-making operation but plaster, with its accompanying dust, is still the basic material for creating casts of customers' feet that can be used to build inserts or even entire shoes meant to make their lives more comfortable.
The ability of the store's owners and staff to do this specialized work has long set Best-Made Shoes apart from traditional stores selling the latest footwear fashions in the malls.
It's unlikely platform shoes and stiletto heels have ever made an appearance in the bright, clean showroom of the Liberty Avenue house-turned-store.
But these days the brand-name comfort shoe category has swollen along with the nation's population of aging Baby Boomers and younger runners experiencing the agony of the feet. And that has changed the Best-Made Shoes business.
No longer focusing 100 percent on custom shoes, as the store did when it opened in the 1970s, these days 60 percent of sales come from brands such as Aravon, Dr. Comfort, Finn, Kumfs and New Balance.
"The shoe manufacturers were making more shoes available that could help people," said Gene Rosen, who founded the store and started the slow integration of brands when he began carrying Birkenstocks back in the 1980s.
Cost savings for customers can be significant if they find a mass-produced shoe that solves their foot problem. A custom-made shoe can cost more than $600, which makes paying $140 for a black Sequoia with stretchy material and good support seem like a bargain.
Carrying more brand-name shoes -- even some relatively fashionable lines -- doesn't mean Best-Made Shoes has given up its positioning as the place for the tired, the aching and the frustrated. If a brand like New Balance offers five different widths of a shoe, Best-Made tries to carry all five.
The store also has increased its relationships with insurance companies, so it can serve diabetics with prescriptions for shoes that will fit their needs. It's a growth niche. The American Diabetes Association estimates more than 25 million Americans have diabetes.
And even if customers with problems find a brand-name shoe that works, the style often needs to be adapted, perhaps with custom orthotics that can run $250 or ready-made versions that might range from $30 to $70. The Rosens also make house calls, for a $40 fee, to help customers who can't get in to see them.
Both Gene and his son, Marc Rosen, are certified pedorthists trained in evaluating and managing foot and ankle issues. Gene Rosen's father started the family tradition by first making custom shoes and orthotics back in 1955. The son set up shop in Pittsburgh in 1977.
Now, the store employs two workers, in addition to the Rosens, and gets help from other family members.
Marc Rosen, who grew up in the Pittsburgh business, can handle that machine in the workshop that stamps heel replacements out of thick sheets of rubber and can show off the Vacupress that molds rubber around plaster casts. He is also comfortable working with people's feet, something that didn't seem so appealing when he was younger.
But his early career move into marketing -- he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1992 after studying communication and rhetoric -- has its uses, too.
Best-Made Shoes hits the traditional advertising spots like the phone book, but the younger Mr. Rosen also has been using a website, Facebook and Twitter (@pittsburghshoes).
Social media comes with its own set of drawbacks -- a customer in November complained on Facebook that the store didn't carry her size -- but Mr. Rosen said the online presence brings customers from other cities, states, and even countries. The website hosts almost 2,000 visitors a month. And a few weeks after that complaint was posted on Facebook, another woman raved the store is the best place in Pittsburgh to get inserts for heel pain.
Even if it wasn't his first career choice, Marc Rosen said he's come to appreciate working in a business that makes customers feel better. "People walk in, they're crying. They say, 'You're my last hope,' " he said.
While declining to release detailed financials, the family said sales were up 20 percent in the past year. "This is a recession-proof business," said Gene Rosen, "because the people that need jobs can't walk without shoes."
Teresa Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2018. First Published January 31, 2012 5:00 AM