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Take a walk in his moccasins; Hudson shoemaker holds on to tradition.

Byline: Julia Quinn-Szcesuil Photography by Tom Rettig

If Paul Ouellette, owner of Arrow Moccasin Company in Hudson, has his way, customers will never settle for pinched toes and blistered heels for the sake of a shoe.

"There are plenty of uncomfortable shoes out there,'' says Ouellette. The true moccasins his company makes right in Hudson, with their handmade, all-leather components, let customers breathe a sign of relief as they ease tired, weary feet into a covering that conforms to each bump and curve, some even enveloping their tootsies with genuine Australian sheepskin. The resulting comfort is so transformative, customers have told him the mocs changed their lives.

In the tradition begun in 1965 by his father Ron (who worked as a boot maker at Old Sturbridge Village in the 1950s), Ouellette has no plans to change the way Arrow mocs are produced. "I am going to keep on doing it the way I am doing it,'' says Ouellette, noting that he keeps his prices in the $150 to $200 range to make them available to a wider range of customers.

Arrow moccasins have covered the feet of everyone from the most devoted Appalachian Trail hiker to fashion devotees in Japan to rocker Ted Nugent, who can be seen wearing them in photographs in the inside sleeve of his Double Live Gonzo! album. With their unique look and sturdy construction, Arrow moccasins appeal to anyone ready to break out of the traditional shoe routine.

Located in a small building on a mostly residential street, the company ships 18 different styles worldwide. Ouellette, who has run the business since his dad's passing three years ago, says the heart and soul behind every step in making an Arrow moc brings people back.

"It is the quality of the leather, the thickness of it, and our attention to detail,'' says Ouellette. "And we guarantee our stitching, which is really another way of saying it doesn't come apart.''

One glance at a work bench backs Ouellette up. Devoted customers often bring their decades-old, well-worn but still intact moccasins for several resoles before giving in and buying a new pair. Applications of mink oil or Sno-Seal for water protection help the tops, but can't keep wear from the double-soled leather bottom.

"This is a true moc,'' says Ouellette, plucking an all-leather, entirely hand-stitched moc from a wall filled with dozens dangling by their laces. "Once you put a sole on it, it becomes a shoe. A true moc is leather on the bottom.''

Remarkably versatile, the moc is welcome in all climates. Ouellette recently shipped an order to the North Pole, and he says some Native Americans in Taos, N.M., wear Arrow mocs on their treks over rocky ground to and from the pueblos so they don't wear out their own thinner, and more ornate, ceremonial mocs.

Arrow has used the same leather from Switzerland for years, and it is tanned in an English tannery with a special process that keeps the 1/4-inch thick leather pliable and not stiff. The process of making the moc has remained traditional. "As with a good meal, you have to have good ingredients,'' says Ouellette. "My father used to say this leather wears like iron.''

Years ago, each moccasin pattern piece was hand cut, a task now taken over somewhat by machines. "But machines won't do certain things,'' says Ouellette as he expertly cuts a perfectly angled half moon that will later take shape as a moc heel. With a razor-sharp tool and a precious hide, there is little room for error.

Like any precise craft, once you get the hang of it, you get into a groove, says Ouellette. Sitting amid the sheepskin-, leather-, and paper-strewn work area, Ouellette says the work, though demanding, is meditative.

"I think that is true for most people who sew,'' he says. "They get into the rhythm of whatever they are doing. It can be very peaceful.'' Stretching and tacking the leather onto a shoe "last'' is Ouellette's own task, one he has done since high school. "I like doing this point a lot,'' he says, "and I am the only one who does this step.''

Around the mocs from the beginning, Ouellette worked in the shop in high school before leaving for college, but never doubted he would return. "I've always known I wanted to do this,'' says Ouellette. When his father died, Ouellette knew the magnitude of assuming the mantle of the family's successful business. To this day, his mom (who prefers to be known as Mrs. Ouellette) still runs the front of the shop, and Ouellette, like his father, believes his customers' happiness is the top priority.

Arrow Moc's five employees often stitch mocs at home, Ouellette says, in a precise pattern that keeps them sturdy and water-tight, but with an artisan's flair. The beeswax-coated thread is skillfully placed in individually hand-done, awl-punched holes. Each stitch knots the thread, but the interior stitches remain invisible, leaving a smooth interior with exactly matched edges. Even though only a few customers might notice inside stitching, Ouellette refuses to take shortcuts.

"I love the creativity,'' he says. "I see this as an art. I just love it, and I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't.'' Despite the disappearance of companies like his that once populated the East Coast and eventually closed or moved production overseas, Arrow Moc, he says, wears the made in the USA moniker with pride. "I haven't sold out,'' says Ouellette.

And why do fans gravitate back to the mocs?

"It is the closest with protection that you can get to walking around barefoot,'' he says. "Once you break it in, it will mold to your feet.'' Ouellette says his shoes are becoming popular with those who follow the earthing movement, who seek to absorb the earth's energy through their feet, or even with those who appreciate running barefoot but like some protection. Hikers or hunters find the lack of a heavy sole brings lightness and comfort to a long walk.

People appreciate it when they can't get something anywhere else, says Ouellette. John Sawyer, a customer from Salem could not agree more. His wife, Joanne, found Arrow Moc after searching online for the ring mocs her husband loved as a kid. A visit to the shop (complete with a startled reaction to the loud buzzer that sounds when customers enter the shop) convinced the Sawyers they found what they were looking for -- not just a moc, but a tradition.

"Where can you go where you can make an appointment to see the place, get the joy buzzer effect, which is hilarious, walk around and get that leather smell, find a belt or something you can walk away with, order the mocs, and then meet someone who has been making them since he was a kid?'' asks Sawyer. "It's shocking.'' And the mocs were pretty great, too. "To experience wearing mocs like that in a lifetime is amazing,'' he says.

In addition to the many moc styles, Arrow Moccasin also crafts historically authentic 18th century-era mocs for reenactors, and they supply the Massachusetts State Police and many area dog trainers with leather leashes, collars, and harnesses for K9 units. With extra-thick, pre-stretched leather, the sturdy leashes are comfortable for any officer controlling a powerful police dog.

Ouellette can't see himself doing anything else and is pleased to give so much comfort to so many. "At the end of this I am going to make someone happy,'' says Ouellette. "I am making a product that is not only wanted, but will make them happy and for a long time.''
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Title Annotation:Magazine
Author:Rettig, Julia Quinn-Szcesuil Photography By Tom
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 18, 2013
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