Brian Horne, longtime owner and manager of Colburn Shoe Store, America's oldest shoe store, is ready for retirement after 51 years fitting shoes for multiple generations of families in Belfast. Credit: Kay Neufeld / BDN

From the storefront windows of Colburn, Brian Horne has watched families grow up while Belfast transformed from a blue-collar industry town to a tourist destination over the course of 51 years.

The former owner of Colburn Shoe Store first began working there in 1972, eventually buying — and selling — the store. But now, after 51 years, Brian Horne has measured his last feet.

“It’s been rewarding that people for generations come back,” Brian Horne said. “I’ve personally put shoes on people as kids that are now grandparents.”

Colburn Shoe Store opened in 1832 and has been in Horne’s family since 1922, when his great uncle Ben Smalley purchased the store from the original owners. Smalley sold the store to Brian Horne’s uncle, Phil Horne, who sold it to his father, Allen Horne, who sold it to Brian Horne in 1986. Colby Horne, Brian Horne’s son, bought the store in 2017. But Brian Horne stayed on for another six years to help with a smooth transition — and, perhaps, because he loves it.

“I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. Some of them, I might not know their first or last name down pat, but I know their shoe size and what they like,” Brian Horne said.

Jean Brown, a Belfast native perusing Colburn’s shelves on Tuesday, is one of those kids who grew up wearing shoes from Colburn.

“My mother took us here, and then I took my kids here and now my kids take their kids here,” Brown said. “The Horne family are wonderful, generous people.”

Brian Horne can track Belfast’s transformation through shoes.  

When Brian Horne began working at Colburn, Belfast was dominated by industry with poultry, potato, shoe and sardine factories. Colburn was in turn dominated by customers looking for work boots and “a working family’s footwear,” he said.

That changed when former credit card giant MBNA set up shop in Belfast in the early 1990s.

“It brought a large uptick in business. They hired hundreds of people and most of them needed shoes for their interviews, because they didn’t have dress shoes,” Brian Horne said.

As the oldest store in Belfast, Brian Horne is proud he has helped Colburn stand the test of time despite some downturns.

“We had our trying times. Before MBNA showed up and a lot of the blue-collar industry was struggling, that made us struggle as well. But we were able to make it through it,” Brian Horne said.

Though he’s done working, Brian Horne said he’ll still be around. He lives upstairs, after all.