In a workshop near the Willamette River, self-professed elves stand at their workstations, focused and alert. Bolts of fuchsia, chartreuse and turquoise leather line the shelves, jumbled like the contents of a tipped-over crayon box. Nearby, a craftswoman cuts leather with cookie-cutterlike tools.
A few steps away, other craftsmen and women piece leather to form the tops of shoes. Sewing machines and hydraulic presses create a steady hum while a ventilated hood within the depths of the workshop mysteriously drones above the rhythmic chant. T-t-t-t, t-t-t-t, t-t-t-t. Whoosh. T-t-t-t, t-t-t-t, t-t-t-t. Whoosh. HMMM.
Conversation can hardly make a dent in the noise. The faint smell of industrial-grade glue tickles noses as it wafts from the gluing station inside Soft Star Shoes, where workers turn ordinary materials into shoes that are drastically different from others on the market.
The family-owned company is part of a worldwide trend to embrace feet in their natural state, turning out shoes that are soft and flexible with ultrathin soles — so thin, in fact, that the end products look like leather socks. The footwear — sometimes called "minimalist" — allows wearers to feel like they are walking or running barefoot.
"It makes you feel like a little kid," says Tricia Salcido, co-owner of Soft Star Shoes. "It makes you feel free, and it's fun."
This could be because the company started with children in mind.
Tim Oliver, 61, and his wife founded the company in Wimberly, Texas, in 1984. They had looked for shoes for his daughter that would let her feet move freely. But that was a radical idea. In the 1980s, shoemakers believed shoes with cushioning and extra support not only could but should control the way kids' feet grow. Oliver rejected that.
"Feet are supposed to grow how they want to," Oliver says. "That was very unusual thinking back then."
After the Olivers couldn't find what they wanted in the market, they decided to make it themselves. They relocated to Oregon in 1991, and Salcido bought the company in 2005 with Larkin Holavarri, then Salcido's co-worker at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis. They continued to make kids' shoes, but they also transitioned from wholesale to a company that sells almost exclusively online.
In 2010, Salcido and Holavarri expanded to minimalist running shoes. Forget arch supports. Forget cushioned heels. Forget thick soles. These are shoes that look nothing like the norm. Made of leather, with 2- to 5-millimeter soles, the shoes are so flexible that they can be rolled up like sushi.
Oliver, who continues to work at the company, is "the heart and soul of Soft Star," Salcido says. But he was skeptical of the move to running shoes.
"I probably wouldn't have done it," Oliver says. "Luckily, they realized that it was something that would really take off."
"We didn't turn to running shoes; our customers turned us to running shoes," Salcido says, noting that the company's RunAmoc line now accounts for 50 percent of the business.
One year earlier, journalist Christopher McDougall published "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." McDougall, who injured himself repeatedly when running casually in traditional shoes, set out to answer the question: "How come my foot hurts?" The book explores the science of foot mechanics and how the modern shoe industry — in his words — "ruined running."
The book sparks more than just a discussion. Holavarri credits it for spurring people to drop their traditional shoes and hit the pavement with nothing — or next to nothing — on their feet.
"This is really what propelled the movement into the mainstream," Holavarri says.
Fans say minimalist running improves balance, strengthens muscles and joints and allows runners to race more naturally.
McDougall says the shoes encourage runners to use their natural foot mechanics. In typical running shoes, people land on their heels first. In minimalist shoes, people land on their forefeet; it would hurt too much to land on their heels without the padding.
Plenty of people still believe in the modern running shoe. For one thing, running barefoot or in very lightweight footwear can lead to injury. Common ailments include planter fasciitis, tendonitis and stress fractures.
Dr. Thomas Palmer, a Portland podiatrist, estimates he has treated more than 100 patients with injuries directly related to minimalist footwear in the past two years. "I don't recommend minimalist footwear at all," Palmer says. That is unless runners are young, flexible and educated about proper form.
But many people are wearing them. Seth DuBois, a salesman at Five Star Sports, can rattle off different brand-name alternatives to Soft Star minimalist running shoes. Nike has the Free; New Balance has the Minimus; Vibram has the FiveFingers.
Shoe trends have come and gone over the years. Is this one here to stay? Or will people laugh about these next-to-nothing shoes in 40 years the way they scoff at Earth Shoes now?
At Peak Sports in downtown Corvallis, manager Kyle McVay says the popularity of FiveFingers could be tapering off. "Two years ago, people couldn't get enough," he says.
McDougall says he doesn't view the movement as a passing trend. Modern running shoes weren't around before the 1970s, and people have run without them for thousands of years. These past few decades have been a blip in running history, McDougall notes. "We had a temporary loss of sanity."
In the office next to the workshop at Soft Star's headquarters, Salcido and Holavarri recently considered the very same question. Both say they believe the principles of minimalist footwear will continue to shape the shoe industry and how people approach running.
"Yes, it's a fad," Salcido says. "But it's a fad that will have a lasting impact."