By Colleen Crowley
LAUREL — Randy Kroop is the last of her kind; the last of her family to run A.M. Kroop and Sons, Inc. She is the last Kroop to make a shoe.
The story of A.M. Kroop and Sons, Inc., a Laurel mainstay for over 90 years, starts in Latvia, where Randy’s great-grandparents were shoemakers. Her grandfather, Adolph, immigrated to Canada and briefly moved to New York, then to Baltimore and Ellicott City before setting up shop in Laurel. That was in 1925.
Adolph did not intend on making equestrian boots, but when a jockey came by and asked for a custom pair, Adolph saw a business opportunity and took it. Being near two racetracks, it seemed a natural fit. Kroop’s, as it was colloquially known, became specialized in jockey boots, jodhpurs, exercise and English boots and quickly gained a reputation for the quality and comfort of their shoes.
“We made a shoe to last…to fit you,” said Randy.
They outfitted some of the most illustrious jockeys of the day, like Bill “Willie” Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro and George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to victory in a 1938 two-horse special at Pimlico Race Course.
Randy’s father Morris and uncle Israel took over the business in 1966. During her childhood, Randy’s father would take her to the shop on weekends and holidays and let her observe or do small tasks. As she became older, she began taking on more responsibilities in the workshop. She has always been drawn to creative pursuits; she attended Towson University and graduated with a degree in fine arts.
Randy returned to the shop but said that “working with family was intense…father, aunt, uncle, I just couldn’t handle it.” She moved away to Michigan, where she remained for three years before her father asked her to return and take over the business in 1979.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it five years.’”
Five years turned into 40, and over the decades, Kroop’s continued serving the horse racing community while expanding to include more custom work.
Randy often had customers who could not find shoes that fit them due to birth defects, injuries or simply the shape of their foot or leg.
“Creating a shoe that fit was one the most satisfying parts of the job,” said Randy. The end product often resulted in shared hugs and tears of joy.
“I miss the people. They were really, really pleasant people,” said Randy. “And we had so many years together, you felt like you knew them.”
Eventually, inflation increased the cost of a Kroop’s boot to a price most people were not willing to pay; when he first founded the business, Adolph’s most expensive, lavish pair of boots cost under $30. Randy’s boots were in the hundreds, or even thousands, depending on the level of customization.
The decline of the horse racing industry, plus competition from commercially-produced shoes caused business to wane. “Today’s market is mostly one size fits most and short lifespan,” said Randy. “That wasn’t what we were.”
At its peak, Kroop’s employed 10 people. When Randy closed the workshop, she was the only employee left.
Randy’s adult son Ari didn’t pick up the mantle for a number of reasons. “I’m not super skilled with art or my hands,” he said. “Plus, I never wanted to own my own business or manage other people.”
According to Ari, Randy saw the impending decline of the horse racing industry and encouraged him to explore other pursuits.
“I think I did the right thing,” Randy said. “But on the other side of it, I feel guilty in that I was the generation that let it down, closed it up.”
Randy tried to sell the store and the family brand, but she couldn’t find the right buyer.
“Every person that I met was just about the money. They didn’t care about the product,” she said. “I’m not willing to put my name on that.”
Although she closed her family’s business last fall, Kroop still makes leather crafts in the small studio she set up in her Columbia, Maryland home. However, it’s nothing like the 2,500-square-foot warehouse on C Street that occupied a place in the history and fabric of Laurel.