SOUTH PORTLAND – Marie Forbes sat in a chair and said casually and cheerfully, “I’m looking for a sexy little black shoe with a heel.”

My first inclination was to ask for more information — maybe a sketch of the shoe so I’d have more to go on. I mean, how do you define sexy in shoe terms?

But before I could open my mouth, Paul Adams had me following him into the back room at Selby Shoes, Etc.

There, piled on narrow shelves from floor to ceiling, were some 8,000 pairs of women’s shoes in closed boxes. Really, there were, like, 8,000 pairs. So how were we going to find the sexy ones without opening them all up?

By using Adams’ 37 years of shoe-selling experience, that’s how. He quickly went in the aisles where he knew the stylish shoes with heels would be, and within those aisles, where the black ones would be. Looking at the model numbers, he picked out three boxes without opening a one.

“Everything’s organized from bottom to top, and from left to right,” he said.

Adams told me he picked the three pairs based on what he thought Forbes would want in a shoe.

“She has a lot of personality, she has an important job (general sales manager of Key Auto Center in Somersworth, N.H.), and she said she wanted something comfortable,” he said.

TOP-SHELF SHOES

The first box Forbes opened had a stylish pair of black suede shoes with suede so fine it sort of looked like velvet. Forbes loved the look, and loved the feel when she slipped them on. She looked at Adams. She looked at me.

She said she didn’t need to see anything else.

I had less success when I tried to help Forbes with another pair of shoes, a black shoe with a heel and a little reddish-purple stripe across the top. As Forbes sat on a chair, I sat on one of those special shoe-store stools, the kind with a little slope in front for the person’s foot. Forbes put her foot up and Adams handed me a shoehorn, something I’ve barely touched in my lifetime.

I undid the shoe’s Velcro strap and slipped the shoe on, clumsily positioning the shoehorn behind Forbes’ foot without really seeing what I was doing. Luckily, it went on.

With the second shoe, I somehow failed to get the shoehorn between the shoe and Forbes’ foot. So she had to help.

And she didn’t like the shoes.

“They’re just not that comfortable,” said Forbes, who comes to Selby from her home in Hampton Beach, N.H., a couple of times a year — at least — to buy shoes.

After she left, I turned to the several pairs she had tried on but had not bought and began to put them away. I was just going to lay them as flat as possible in the box when Adams told me the right way to do it.

“Someone taught me a long time ago that the left goes in the box with sole facing the box, and then the right goes in, that’s the best way,” he said. “And then you wrap the tissue paper over them. You don’t want someone to open a box and find it not looking nice.”

When we went to put the shoe boxes away, it was fairly easy for me to remember what areas Adams had gotten the shoes from. Then I just looked for the brand and style (some had pictures on the outside denoting open toe or pumps, etc.).

I learned that the shoes weren’t just organized by style, model and size, but also by width within a size. “The widths are narrow to wide, bottom to top,” Adams told me.

I had to think for a minute, then realized the pair of Klogs I was putting away was labeled as 7.5 W, so I had to put it on top of the box of Klogs that was 7.5 M, for medium. Adams told me some shoes came in four different widths, so I had to be on the lookout.

While I was in the back room, salesperson Dennie Campbell showed me how to get a box of shoes off the top shelf, some 8 or 9 feet high. For those, the Selby staff uses a specially made box grabber. It has a long wooden broom handle with a metal gizmo on the end. The gizmo is sort of L-shaped, designed so you can slip part of it under the box and part of it along the front of the box and under the cover.

“It doesn’t always work for me. I’ve taken a lot of boxes to the face over the years,” Campbell said.

With that warning, I tried it. Surprisingly, it worked for me. This time, anyway.

While I had been helping Adams wait on Forbes, Campbell had been helping a customer with a very specific shoe-buying challenge — her feet are two different sizes. So after trying on lots of different shoes, the woman ended up buying two pairs to get the two sizes she needed. But because of her size issue, the store gave her one pair at half price.

CUSTOMERS TAKE PRIORITY

When things slowed down, I walked around the store with Campbell straightening things up. We both scoured the dozens of shoes on the walls looking for one that might be pointing in the opposite direction, messing up the order of the place. Then we grabbed paper towels and dusted the glass tables that the shoes rested on.

The first hour that I was in the store, all three salespeople on duty — Adams, Campbell and store owner Ed Lechner — were helping someone the entire time. All three said customers are always the priority, and in an independent store like this one, detail-oriented personal service is what helps set it apart from the chains.

Forbes said she has been coming to Selby for more than 20 years. The staff told me they had lots of loyal customers like that, including one woman who comes from Arizona to shop for shoes yearly with her sisters, who live in Maine.

“We want to do everything we can to make happy customers, because happy customers become repeat customers,” Adams said.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com