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A Really Big Shoe

Colorado's Croc craze is conquering the world. But does it have legs?

I am surrounded by hundreds of plastic shoes.

They are big and absurd and vaguely sinister, like boxing gloves designed by Crayola. They come in a riot of brutally cheerful colors usually reserved for daycare centers and Popsicles: lime, pink, purple, red, chocolate, fuchsia, coral, emerald, sage, pearl white, canary yellow and butter yellow, as well as three shades of blue, basic black and khaki. Some are full of holes. Some have gaping "ventilation ports" on the sides but no perforations on the upper. Some have no holes. Others are barely shoes at all, having been extruded from the crayon machine as open-toed sandals or flip-flops.

Just one, I tell myself. Somewhere in this bounty, there has to be just one pair of Crocs that doesn't make me look like: a) an escaped mental patient, b) a hippie gardener, or c) a complete dork.

My shopping consultant, the Shoe Goddess, takes in the display with a sharp but approving gaze. The Shoe Goddess is a clog connoisseur, and she has lusted after a pair of Crocs since they first hit the market, almost three years ago. But she's never found a selection quite varied enough to suit her, which is why we have come to the Pedestrian Shops on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, the epicenter of the Crocquake. Pedestrian was the first full-fledged shoe store to carry Crocs, which were developed right up the road in Niwot, and the place has done so well peddling them that it opened an extra room this summer just to house its thousand-plus inventory of the little monsters.

"Oh, my," the Shoe Goddess says. "They do have a few pair, don't they?"

The Shoe Goddess wants Crocs, and I figure it's high time to do some journalistic legwork to get to the slip-resistant sole of the whole daffy phenomenon. In August, Crocs Inc. announced plans to go public, seeking to raise as much as $145 million in its initial stock offering. That's a lot of fuchsia boat shoes for a business that just thirty months ago had all of eight employees and was hawking its goods at flea markets and swim stores.

These days, of course, Crocs are everywhere. They are in sporting-goods chains and shopping-mall kiosks, hospital gift stores and bike shops. They are online and off-ramp. Their largest single retailer is Dillard's, but they are sold in more than twenty countries. And, as befits a product originally designed for boats and beaches, the company's largest single market over two years of runaway growth has been Colorado -- lovely, landlocked Colorado, cradle of bad fashion and ungainly footgear.

Whether Crocs belong in chic boutiques, I can't say. But they don't seem to belong on my feet. This becomes obvious when I try on a demure pair of black Metros -- distinguished from the Cayman and Beach models by having the side ports but no holes in the uppers. They bulge alarmingly around the sides of my foot while jamming my toes. I go up a size, which seems to solve the toe problem but leaves the heel strap hanging limply off my ankle. With shoes this wide, I won't need any watercraft; I'll be cruising in my own pair of gunboats.

The Shoe Goddess marvels at their softness. "My feet feel unrestrained," she announces, trying out a pair. "They feel free. They're free to be themselves."

But she, too, is having sizing problems. Her feet are a little too free, it seems. She switches to another pair, then another. "These are huge," she says. "This isn't right at all."

She turns to a man who's restocking the children's section. "Excuse me," she says. "Are some of the models narrower than others?"

The man smiles patiently. He's probably heard that question a hundred times -- today, and it's not even noon. "They're all made on the same last," he says. "They're just a hunk of plastic. Every pair is slightly different."

Emboldened, she returns to the racks. Another female shopper sidles up to her. "I think I saw on the website that one model's narrower," she mutters.

"You want them roomy," the man insists. "If you can feel your toe up against the shoe, it's too small. Of course, you're trying them on at the worst possible time of day. You're just getting up, just starting to move around."

"I've been up for hours," the Shoe Goddess says.

"Is your foot as tired and swollen as it will be at the end of the day?" the man asks.

The Shoe Goddess looks ruefully at her right foot, lost somewhere in the gaping sinkhole of an emerald Cayman. "If my feet ever get swollen enough to fit in these shoes, I'll be in the hospital," she says.

We keep looking. The Shoe Goddess finds nothing that suits her. After much vacillation, I settle on a roomy pair of Metros in navy, the Pedestrian's most popular hue. At $44.95, these are pricier than the basic Beach (a premium for not punching the holes?), and Pedestrian's "sale" price is a few bucks higher than the same shoe at Nordstrom -- but, hey, this is Boulder. I slip them on in the car and we head for the malls, still in search of the elusive "narrower" model.

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