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My niece Bridget is fashion-conscious. Though she lives in a small town in rural New Mexico, she is, thanks to catalogs and the Internet, always bedecked in the latest fabulous must-haves. But there is still one giant, gaping hole in her wardrobe, right down there near the bottom -- her shoes. Bridget was "cursed" (her word) with extremely wide feet. "I can't fit into anything cute," she lamented on the phone as we discussed her upcoming visit. "I want something snappy, but I'm always stuck in sport sandals or tennis shoes. I don't trust a shoe unless I can try it on." Her visit to our sun-drenched city would also see her 24th birthday; I decided to brighten her spirit with a little shoe shopping. I knew I couldn't go to just any shoe shop. I didn't want to watch Bridget struggling to squeeze into this or that style that happened to look a little wider than the rest, insisting that it was perfect even as she winced in pain. So I headed down to Jon's Wide Shoes in Chula Vista (619-427-1464). There, I spoke with Marc Flesch, a 23-year veteran of the shoe biz. He sympathized with Bridget's frustration with sizing. "Nowadays, most companies designate width as slim, narrow, medium, wide, or extra-wide. Extra-wide is the same as doublewide. For ladies' shoes, it used to be that you had shoes that ranged from AAAAAA narrow to EEEE wide. But, slowly but surely, they've been doing away with AA and AAAA and so forth. The factories want to save money, so they're doing away with a lot of widths."

But if particular sizes are becoming uncommon, wide feet are not. "Wide feet on women are very common. We get slim ladies and heavy ladies, all with wide feet. It's genetic, I think." It's also a function of time. "Over the years, our arches start falling down, little by little, and the feet start spreading, not only lengthwise, but also widthwise. However, a lot of ladies don't want to admit that they have wide feet. So what they do is, they buy a longer shoe to help with the width. But then the shoe is going to buckle unevenly," folding and creasing in places where it isn't supposed to fold and crease. "It will get worn out pretty rapidly," Flesch told me.

A wide or doublewide shoe is distinguishable by its wider base, said Flesch. "The base will be wider than a medium, and the sole may be broadened. But with some brands, they'll use the same base as they would for a medium and just increase the upper area."

Though Flesch employs the classic Brannock measuring device you are likely to see in any shoe store, "the width measurement is not very accurate any more." Not because the Brannock is faulty, but because "shoe companies use so many different factories overseas to produce shoes. It's not consistent any more. We have a Hush Puppie basic pump [ $38 ] that is supposed to be standard in every single size. But they use different factories, so we get a shoe in one color that fits differently than the same-size shoe in another color. Depending on the shoe, a person who is a size nine might wear a shoe anywhere from eight and a half to ten. So you need to try them on to make sure of a proper fit." Bridget was right.

This is how Flesch fits a shoe: "The toe should not hit the front of the shoe; my estimate is that it should be about a quarter-inch from the tip of the foot to the end of the shoe. The shoe should not be tight where you see the little toe pushing out of the shoe."

At Jon's, he said, "we carry only wide or extra-wide for a lot of our dressier shoes, and in some cases, only the extra-wide -- the front of the shoe is so tapered that even a wide won't be wide enough for most women." Styles change seasonally, but there are also perennials -- classic pumps don't change much over time. Flesch thinks SAS ( $90 - $118 a pair at Jon's) is the best maker of wide shoes for women, but the company does not offer as many style choices as its competitors. Still, I was drawn to the black, three-buckle, faux alligator sandal ( $90 ). Other little numbers that turned my head: the Hush Puppie Chateau ( $57 ), a slim-heeled, strapless black dress shoe adorned with a white leather daisy; the Gloria shoe from Spring Step ( $59 ), a brown, lattice-leather sandal with a chunky heel; and the Cosy Goose sandal ( $72 ) -- black, double-strapped, medium-heeled, and topped with black leather pansies.

I stopped in at Gino's Wide Shoes & Shoe Repair in Grossmont Center (619-433-4466), where I met a happy customer stuffing her feet into a plethora of stylish shoes. "I didn't know this place was here," she marveled. "I was just walking by. I'm at the point where I'll take whatever fits and doesn't hurt. I've been reduced to wearing these to work," she concluded, pointing at a pair of worn sport sandals. "All those years of wearing high heels to look pretty have ruined my feet and back."

Wade, the sales clerk, told me that Spring Step ( $69 - $125 ) is the store's most popular line. "They're stylish and comfortable -- you can get a shoe with a heel on it and walk in it all day." Gino's, he said, carries sizes 5 to 16 and widths from wide to EEEEE. "We get all kinds of customers. Sometimes, we stretch shoes by hand, with a shoe stretcher. We spray them with a material that opens up the pores of the leather -- that way, it doesn't tear or pull away from the stitching. It usually takes several days. We do have a shoe with a heel that's very flexible -- I got a four-and-a-half-inch width out of one before."

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