This was a personal project I worked on back in 1992. I don’t normally show old work but I still found this interesting. This adventure took place when Chuck Taylor All Stars were still made in the USA and photos were still taken with film.
I've been wearing Converse All Stars (Chucks) for as long as I can remember. I've had different types of shoes here and there, but basically I've been faithful to Chucks. My Mom tells me she bought Chucks for me when I was young because they were cheap, so, I had no other choice but to wear them. This wasn't a bad thing though, I liked how Chucks felt and most importantly they looked cool. I decided to find out more about these shoes that I've been wearing for so long. I wanted to bring a pair back to their makers in Lumberton, North Carolina. I wanted to see where they came from and what kind of environment it was, and see who helped create this shoe that I was so obsessed with. Most people buy shoes without knowing anything about them. I wanted to know everything that occurred before my Chucks arrived in my hands.
I bought a pair of blue Chucks here in San Francisco. Blue because my last couple of pairs were black and white, and blue is also my favorite color. In my search I went all over the city and for some weird reason almost every store was out of blue Chucks, size 7 1/2. Finally I found one store which had two pairs left. The first pair didn't meet my approval, because the blue stripe on the shoe's left toe was not lined up correctly and didn't match the right shoe. The only other pair in my size was on display in the front window, which was discolored from being handled by so many people.
I made my own pair by taking the best shoe from both boxes to make one good pair. Looking at me the saleswoman said jokingly, "What is it with you Chuck people? You're so picky." She then assured me that it was normal and people did it all the time. I don't know why I tried them on since I've been wearing a 7 1/2 for about five years. Of course they fit, so I bought them. I was happy with my new pair but I didn't wear them home from the store because it was raining and I didn't want to get them dirty. The date was January 25, 1992. It was 2:33 on a Saturday afternoon.
My new chucks took on my identity, they were a reflection of who I was. An all American shoe for an all American guy. As far as I was concerned my chucks hadn't really lived. Once they were taken off the assembly line they were put into a dark shoe box and haven't seen anything since then. Maybe once they got to California they were inspected by the store owner or they might have been tried on by one or two people but I like to imagine that I was the first one.
In order to plan my trip to the factory, I spent a week calling Public Relations at Converse headquarters in North Reading, Massachusetts. Every time I called, the PR person was in a meeting. She called me back once and was willing to listen to me, but that's about all. Roughly she said that there was nothing in it for Converse, so why should they give up their time to help me? She said she would try to set something up and would call me back when she found something out. Well, that was the last I heard from her. I tried to call her back but she was always in a meeting. I decided to go down to the factory in Lumberton, NC permission or not; hoping that somehow I could get in.
I flew to the east cost, because I thought it would be appropriate to start my journey from were I grew up in Kensington, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington D.C., my birth place. I began my eight hour drive to North Carolina early the next day. My Mom waved goodbye from inside the house. I don't think she understood why I was going down to the Converse factory.
As I began my journey south, I felt obligated to give my shoes a quick tour of the city (about an hour). One of the sights was the United States Capitol building. I am extremely proud of my home town, and love showing it off. I wish I had more time to spend in Washington, D.C., but I was anxious to continue with my mission.
Under the Dome in the U.S. Capital building
The drive from Washington was very tiring, but knowing that I was in North Carolina and almost there made me feel better. The 65 mph speed limit didn't speed things up. It just meant that if I got caught speeding I would be going only 20 mph over the speed limit rather than 30.
When I entered Lumberton, the sky cleared up. I arrived around 4:00 in the afternoon with enough time to locate the factory. I went to a Converse outlet store and asked them for directions.
The factory wasn't that hard to find. When I came upon it my heartbeat quickened. I didn't know what to do, so I drove past the factory and pulled off to the side of the road. I couldn't turn into the parking lot because the whole area was fenced off with barbed wire.
I didn't want to screw up my chances by rushing into things, so I went to my hotel to wait until the next day. The next morning I called the factory. I asked to speak to a public relations person. I was connected to many people before I ended up with Susan Ashley. I told Ms. Ashley my story and that I wanted to visit the factory and photograph the line. She said she would call me back in 30 minutes. After dealing with public relations in Massachusetts I didn't think Ms. Ashley was ever going to call me back. 20 minutes later, she called back explained that it was out of her hands because it was against company policy to let people photograph without the okay from public relations in Massachusetts.
Since I had already talked with public relations in Massachusetts I knew that they weren't going to be of any help. My dream was shattered. I kept trying to persuade Ms. Ashley but she still said no. However, she did allow me onto the factory grounds to photograph the outside of the factory.
The Security Guard, George, was very friendly and helpful. He was very nice when I asked to photograph him. I was a little nervous asking, especially with my feet on desk. his only comment was that I had to hurry because he had some important things to do. I think he just wanted to finish listening to the game on the radio.
At first he gave me an old visitors badge but then decided I deserved a brand new one from his special collection.
The entrance to the factory wasn't as monumental as I thought it would be, and yet this was when the excitement really hit me. I was at the factory. I was back where my shoes began. The air smelled like chucks fresh out of their box.
Ms. Ashley met me out side to say hello, which I thought was very nice. When I asked if I could take her picture she said not of her face. Which was fine because it was her shoes that I was interested in.
I was loving every minute of my stay. Ms. Ashley let me explore the grounds freely. The grounds would have seemed boring and dull to most people, but I found it incredibly exciting.
I was also able to see the trucks in which the shoes are shipped. My Chucks left the factory in a Converse truck filled with thousands of other Chucks. It’s neat to think we both left the East Coast and met on the West Coast. I wonder how many times they were almost sold before I got them.
I caught a factory worker out on a cigarette break. He works in the stripping department which is where the excess rubber is cut off the shoes. He said that he grew up on Chucks but after a while he needed a change. At least he was still wearing Converse shoes.
After my exploration of the grounds I went back in to say thank you to Ms. Ashley. She was able to sit down with me and looked at the photos I had taken in San Francisco. She seemed to like them so I gave her the photograph of my Chucks with the green rolling mountains in San Francisco.
I asked her if I could buy a pair of Chucks, but she insisted on giving me a complimentary pair. Now I have a brand new pair with no history. I can say that I know everything that has happened to these Chucks after they left the factory. I get to make their history.