Saturday, April 27, 2013

Of Pain and Longing at the 1970's Shoe Store

They were always Excursions, these solemn trips to buy new shoes. I can't say why, or even whether it was my mother's own idiosyncracy or a quirk of her entire generation, but the fitting of shoes to children's feet was serious business. Dire consequences would accrue to the waif wearing ill-fitting footwear with rounded, not squared, toe boxes. Heaven forfend!

The employees at Tru-Form, located at 86th Street and Third Avenue, adjacent to the McDonald's that we were never allowed to frequent, were of a piece: older, bespectacled men in poorly made suits who gave off an acrid smell of cigarettes and sweat and wore expressions of beleaguered disappointment in their stations. I found them vaguely sinister and ran off as soon as I could, my stubby, chubby toddler legs carrying me up three steps on scratchy orange carpeting to a corner aquarium, where I pressed fingers on the glass separating me from sluggish, pale, overfed goldfish.

After a time I was called back from the aquarium by my mother (our number had been announced many minutes after she had sat clutching her little paper slip with a sort of grim resolve - I'd never seen her as powerless as she seemed in the shoe store). I sat beside her on a bench and stayed silent while a balding shoe salesman pushed my foot roughly into a shoe sizer, a frightening metal contraption, a ruler gone wild with letter widths and number lengths, so many permutations of numbers and letters that it gave me a headache. When the man, scowling with effort, was satisfied with my measurement, he went into the back, a dark, mysterious place where children were expressly forbidden to venture. 

He returned carrying boxes of shoes, each pair uglier than the last, until I was convinced that these were in fact orthopedic shoes and that my feet must be well and truly deformed. I had no say as to which pair of shoes was ultimately purchased and knew in any event to keep my mouth shut, because the one time I had expressed a preference my mother had deviated so far from it that I'd wised up, deciding that if I said nothing at all I might by chance take home the least objectionable shoes.

Finally it was over, perhaps an hour later, and my brother and I selected lollipops, the candy slight but acceptable reward for our wasted time. The shoe salesman patted us awkwardly on the tops of our heads, and gratefully we opened the doors to sunshine, fresh air, and the thrum of the city before us. I wish I could say that I spared a thought for the bloated goldfish in their stale water, or for the sad old men I was so anxious to leave behind, but I never once did.

10 comments:

Janet said...

Our store was like that, too, though without the aquarium. We generally got to choose what we liked, but there were precious few options back then.

Nicole said...

I don't remember shoe shopping except for one time when my mom bought me red velvet shoes at Christmastime. It was a one-off thing, usually my shoes were very simple and practical.

alejna said...

You tell your childhood stories so vividly, I feel like you've brought me into the stuffy air of the shoe store with you.

I can't find a single memory of my own experiences of shopping for shoes before about 9. I know that I had shoes, but I don't remember exactly how I came to have them. There is a good chance that many of them were hand-me-downs. I'm sure that there must have been new shoes, too. I know I had sneakers (though in California we called them tennis shoes) and one pair of Birkenstocks. (It was, after all, California in the 70s...)

Neil said...

I sincerely loved this one, especially because I could so relate. My parents would take me to the Stride Rite in downtown Flushing where there were at least five different shoe stores. Why were there so many different shoe stores back then? Perhaps there were no Target or Kmarts yet. And like you so evocatively write, they were the home of old men, shoe SALESMEN, not just kids with an afterschool job like they do now at Foot Locker. These were men who spent their entire lives selling shoes. And I was also very curious about that "back room" where they went and sometimes stayed for what seemed like a half hour. How unorganized was it back there that it took so long? The only different I have in my memory was that metallic foot measurer. I thought it was incredibly cool. I would immediately put my foot in it, even before the salesman would show up, and he always seemed annoyed that I didn't wait for him.

De said...

My mother was so concerned about my toes ( and toe nails) that she bought narrow shoes in a size larger. As if I wasn't awkward enough.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

I worked in a full service shoe store in Oklahoma when I was in my early 20s. I used the ruler (which confused me), advised parents about the differences between the stiff traditional baby shoes and the new wave of softer more pliable ones. I waited on some spoiled brats who treated their parents with so little respect, which esp. disturbed me when the parents were purchasing the child a pricey "it" shoe (Tretorns, Keds, Reeboks!)that they could ill afford. The manager of the store was in his 40s and had never done anything but sold shoes...he was from Iowa.

karen said...

Our Stride-Rite had a fire engine that you could climb in - actually a small set of carpeted stairs behind a wall painted to look like a fire engine - that led to a tiny landing from which you could peer out at the row of waiting mothers' heads. I still remember being happy the year that the awful tie-shoes were blue. They still weren't penny loafers but at least they weren't the color of poop.

Ellen M. said...

Extraordinary writing, Sarah.

Christine said...

Our shoe store was just like you describe and was called "Kenney's." It was so brown inside if that makes any sense at all. We went there to buy sensible shoes to go with our school uniforms. Yuck. We were lucky enough, though, to convince my mom to buy us Van's in Jr. high. Thank god.

Magpie said...

Yes - our excursions were much the same, although sneakers came in the mail from Sears Roebuck.

Now, we wander the aisles at Target and guess the size and hope for the best, with no professional assistance.