I can’t remember the last time I bought a pair of shoes in a stand-alone shoe store. I’ve bought an occasion pair in a department store, but it has been a long time since I sat in the stuffed chairs and was waited on by an eager clerk, shoe horn stuck in his waistband ready to draw like a western six shooter, at the first sign of a stubborn shoe.
Growing up a new pair of shoes meant a trip to the Browns Shoe Fit Co. on the corner of 16th and Stone street, across from Falters Men’s Store. Walking in to the store the essence of leather and musty carpet greeted you.
In the summer months the over-the-door air-conditioner dripped on you but rewarded you with a place to shop in cool comfort. There was a sign glued to the door with an image of a polar bear inviting you in with, “come inside, we are air-conditioned.”
The entrance to the store was at the end of a funnel formed by two large display windows angling out to the street. The windows and entrance were protected by a marquee that extended on out over the sidewalk. The display windows were dressed keeping the sexes politely apart. On one side was the best of the men’s and boy’s shoes on the other side were the women’s and girls’ selection.
The displays played a key role for window shopping on evening walks.
There were only a few other places to buy shoes in town, but the displays in Browns made it look like they were fighting for every foot that passed their way. J.C. Penney had a shoe department as did a few of the women’s clothing stores along with Falters and if you were in need of good boots, Falls City Farm Store had those.
The door in to the store was a single door, none of the fancier up-to-code two door options you find today. Behind the main door was a screen door that in the cooler days, those between extreme heat and nail biting cold, acted as the only barrier between shopping and the then busy downtown activity. Late August, when the school shoe ritual would start, the screen door was a tease reminding you that inside was nine months of ugly, dreaded school work and outside was freedom, fishing and root-beer floats.
Mom was the official shoe shopper and it was her lead that every sales person worthy of a golden shoe horn needed to respect. There were rules which needed to be followed. Number one, there was a budget. Well, that eliminated all of the window shoes for us. The shoes had to last for more than a year (even if the child wearing them needed to curl their toes by years end), so this means style is now out and function in. This requirement also meant they had to have leather soles and hard rubber heels that could be repaired or stretched to last maybe another couple of months. And…the final looming requirement in my situation anyway was, “do you have anything in a B width?” Mom would whisper this to the clerk as if it was a social disease that her youngest son had feet shaped more like narrow ski’s than normal flipper based feet the rest of society was blessed with.
Then to add even more embarrassment, “Maybe you ought to measure him.” As if she thought my foot magically swelled to a normal D width over a summer of flip flops and tennis shoes.
The clerk, following her suggestion would stick my foot on this strange device move a few things back and forth as if he was preparing to measure twice and cut once, then announce the new foot size to the entire store as if he made a world altering discovery.
“Yep that is a B width for sure. I’ll check and see what we have.”
Some kids had acne or an Alfalfa cowlick in the middle of their forehead, I got the 2×2 feet.
The clerk would disappear behind the magic wall of shoe storage land and emerge moments later with, if I was lucky, two boxes of shoes. Most of the time my selection was limited to one pair of plain oxfords that came along with a whispered apology, “that is all we have that will fit a foot like that.”
Then the try on.
As if tracing a ballet move on the floor, using one foot, the clerk, would slide the miniature slipper slide shaped stool up to the chair. It was one of the few times when a kid could actually feel like he was being waited on by one of the older guys in town. You felt like saying come on move it along and don’t make it too tight this time. But, kid wisdom also told you that you would most likely run into this character somewhere away from the protection of mom or dad.
As dad often reminded us, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”
Once both shoes were on it was time to take the “the walk.” Mom would give the command, “walk to the end of the display case.”
“Lift your pant leg so I can see if they are slipping.”
So now I am walking through a crowded store looking half like a pony finding their new legs and a little girl lifting her new dress avoiding puddles.
Next the thumb test. Moms all across the nations must have some direct correlation between their thumbs width and the growth speed of their children’s feet. Some geneticist is missing their shot at the Nobel Prize by not testing this theory. Even if the well-meaning clerk tried to use his or her thumb, that did not mean anything compared to the mother test. After all, the clerk is not genetically linked to the newly shod.
When the sale was complete the clerk would always ask, “Do you want to wear them home or put your old shoes back on.” It was like magic. My voice sounded just like Mom’s. “No, we will wear the old ones.” You never wanted to wear the new ones out of the store because you still needed to break them in on the carpet at home. Besides, the sale was still not official until Dad gave the second thumb test at home.
I never thought to measure the width of Mom’s thumb compared to Dad’s. Wouldn’t that be a weird finding to discover that mates selected at random ended up with the same thumb widths.
A shoe rack was not something you found in many homes when I was growing up. The pigeon-hole storage containers for shoes often depicted in modern closets was not necessary. Nobody had that many shoes! My shoes, two pair, fit neatly in the closet next to Tom’s two pair with plenty of room to spare. My boots and tennis shoes never made it to the second floor. Their place was the basement next to the shoeshine kit.
Every Saturday the shine kit made its way up to the kitchen for the polishing ritual. Shoes were polished with Parade Dress black to a gloss that stood up to inspection by Master Sergeant Mom. (You thought I was going to say Dad didn’t you.) I hated this ritual. I managed to procrastinate it long enough that it was often a last minute chore prior to going to bed.
It is just the opposite today. I enjoy the forced slow-down that comes with polishing a pair of shoes. The smearing of the paste polish, the old rag that is infused with all the colors of the shoes in the house and the horse hair brush brought from home that brings out the final luster. Sometimes I can feel Dad’s hand on the brush as I buff the parade dress polish to the shine it deserves.
Polishing was just one part of shoe ownership, the other responsibility was shoe repair. Walk up and down any small town and you could find several shoe repair shops. Matter of fact, shoe repair is in the Casey blood. One of the original businesses in downtown Falls City was a shoe repair shop owned by Great Grandfather Casey.
Before socks started showing through the soles and the heels reduced our height marks on the wall, we were dispatched to Lorenzo’s repair shop for soles and heels.
A trip to Lorenzo’s was an adventure in itself. The shop occupied a squeezed space between Gambles hardware and a car dealership. There was probably a time when the space was a walkway between the two businesses and someone got the idea to put a ceiling, and a door on it.
Or, maybe the space was made just for Lorenzo.
In stature he was not a big man but in reputation and influence he was. More than once I watched him, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, dressed in pressed jeans restrained with a western belt that I imagined he tooled himself, a buckle that would make any rodeo cowboy jealous, western shirt and bolo tie all brought together with a shoe polish stained apron, looking up and tapping his finger on the chest of a much larger man, while making his point on a local political issue or the best load to use when pheasant hunting.
On entering the little corridor a bell would ring over the door signaling Lorenzo there was a customer in the shop but for the most part it was a useless fixture. Even though the shop was small it was one of the favorite hangouts second only to the Hotel Barber shop directly across the street. As a kid you often had to squeeze past well matured stomachs and a clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke to make it to the counter to deliver moms repair instructions.
“Soles and heels please.”
Waiting for Lorenzo was never a chore. The narrow walls were covered with a parade of guns, western belts with tooled stories stretching all the way to the epic buckles the size of a farmer’s hand. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the stories flying back and forth. The smell of Kiwi polish still takes me back to the dark little shop. When I was a few years older it was Lorenzo who sold me my first shotgun pulled off the wall of that shop.
Eventually Lorenzo closed the repair business and opened a gun shop next to the Journal on Harlan Street. It was still a local hangout for fishing tales and hunting escapades but it didn’t have the charm of the cubby-hole shop.
When I turned sixteen I secured an after school job at the local J.C. Penney store. I swept the floors with an aisle wide broom, made sure all of the waste containers were emptied, and the fingerprints removed from the front doors. It was a great job and the manager, Mr. Comfort seemed to take me under his wing and gave me additional duties in the store.
One night as we were closing up he pulled me aside and gave me a portable 45 record player and manual. It was a complete course in how to be a J.C. Penney shoe salesman. By the time I completed the course I was ready to tackle any foot that came through the door, the mantra of the program running in my head, “Every person that comes through the door is a potential shoe customer.”
The mysteries of the Brannock Device were revealed and I could now measure the smallest baby foot to the talcum powdered caked feet squeezed into pumps. My shoe horn was issued and I had a pass to the deep dark hallways of the behind the scenes shoe racks. Before long I was the professional who could swing a fitting stool in place, pop open a new shoe box and draw a shoe horn from my belt all before the customer was seated.
I was now on the other side of the chair when mothers tested the growing room and kids argued for the impractical while cost dictated the practical. I watched with a now trained eye as countless customers took “the walk” testing their new shoes for slippage. My role even necessitated a few trips just down the block to Lorenzo’s for heel pads and an occasional bunion stretch. This time the visits were different. I went to the front of the line. I was now part of the shoe industry and we were now, “sole mates.”
Today when I need a pair of shoes I sit down at the computer and pull up countless websites claiming to have the styles and sizes to fit everyone’s needs.
I see a pair of loafers that look like they would be a good addition to the collection. Filling out the order form and sending in the request, a magical cyber salesman hunts the racks of shoes and comes back with,
“Sorry, this is all we have to fit a foot like yours.”
A thumbs width to grow, kiwi shoe polish, and broken shoe laces were all just part of growing up.
Picture courtesy of Google Earth 2015