They used to be ubiquitous: full-service shoe stores known in the trade as “sit-and-fit” shops. As in, the customer would sit, and the salesperson would fit.
At one time there were four of them in East Boston’s Meridian Street neighborhood alone. Cushie’s. Jason’s. Bobby’s. And of course, Al’s Shoe Store, which lasted longer than any of them.
Over the years, Al’s sold saddle oxfords, Mary Janes, Beatle boots, wedges, disco heels, Keds. During the shop’s heyday, the customers were mostly large Italian or Irish families, which, felicitously for Al’s store owner Henry Wein, meant many pairs of feet. He remembers one family with 11 children who bought shoes every year before school started and for Easter.
But that was back in the 1950s and ’60s when selling shoes was considered a proud calling and buying them was a big deal, when shoe salesmen wore suits and divined your shoe size not by asking you for it, but by “measuring you up.”
To younger generations accustomed to buying shoes online or at sprawling self-serve shoe warehouses, the demise of such stores is barely noteworthy. But to Wein, who took over Al’s from his father-in-law Alexander Slessinger in 1946 and turned it over to his own son Bob in 2006, the decision to close up shop Sunday is heartbreaking.
“I wake up in the morning and look up, and say, ‘Why?’ ” Wein said despondently.
Although his real name is Henry, you can call him Al; he’s been Al to his customers for nearly 70 years. “I tried to get Bobby to be called Al,” Wein said of his son Bob. “He didn’t want it.”
Al’s Shoe Store is 90 years old, just like Henry, who still works there. Now in its fourth location — three on Meridian, and for the last 14 years, at 225 Border St. — it specializes in what he describes as “medium to inexpensive shoes.” A pair of Hush Puppies went for $65. Reebok, $66. No one ever confused Al’s with the shoe department at Saks.
For decades, business was so good and customers so loyal Wein could raise three kids comfortably and send them all to college. A family would come in and he’d measure all their feet — length and width — with his “Brannock,” a metal foot measuring device named after the inventor. Whatever Henry recommended, the dad bought.
“He had some stature,” said his son Jay Wein.
“It wasn’t just a matter of coming in to buy shoes,” Henry Wein said. “I’d get involved in family talk.”
He fitted babies with their first hard sole white walking shoes, little girls with tap and ballet shoes, and high school seniors with white satin dress shoes, which Bob would dye to match their prom dresses.
Henry keeps a collection of photographs from the old days in — what else? — a shoe box, and takes them out one by one. There are pictures of children in their first shoes and later, grown up, at their proms, with names like Retrocelli, Cappozzi, DeFilippo. He was invited to customers’ christenings, weddings, and other events.
He also offered a service that no other store could match. The squeak.
“Generations of people still remember the squeak,” Bob said at the store one day last week. The mechanism is unclear but through what appears to be a secret combination of sleight-of-hand and ventriloquism, Henry and Bob can coax a high-pitched squeak from a child’s new shoes by pressing on their toes or even shaking their hands.
As though on cue, a little girl in a princess-like dress toddles up with her mother. She gamely gives Bob her hand and winces, waiting. Squeak!
“This is what they look forward to,” Bob Wein said.
It’s also what they look back on: “I would go to Al’s shoes and he’d go ‘Eek! Eek!’ ” said Lea Sheffro, who was looking for bargains with her mother, Marie Bongiorno. Sheffro’s children are 24 and 18, and they got their shoes at Al’s when they were kids, too.
But 10 or 15 years ago, the business began to change.
Manufacturing went overseas, which irked Henry, who said the quality of the shoes went down. The neighborhood changed, too. The Italian families he knew so well started to move out and others moved in, from North Africa, El Salvador, and Colombia. Bob picked up Spanish bit by bit, but the language barrier flustered Henry, who has a hearing problem.
“He knew everyone in East Boston, and vice versa,” said Jay. “When he knew no one and no one knew him, it took the steam out of him.”
Buying habits changed too. People prefer to buy shoes at department or warehouse stores, or, like everything else, online. “Now they’re the experts,” Henry said dryly. “They don’t know about sitting down and being taken care of.”
That service is described by another shoe man of longstanding, Richard Michelson, 80, president of 95-year-old Michelson’s Shoes in Lexington and Needham: “You get it done right, not just to get a pair of shoes on a customer and get them to the cash register.”
Gradually the other family shoe stores in the neighborhood called it quits, replaced by chain stores such as Payless, and who could compete with Payless? Recently, Tello’s clothing store put in a shoe department. And they are right next door. “The real hammer came about three months ago when we realized we couldn’t stay,” said Bob. “It’s just not there anymore.”
The “Store Closing” signs went up about a month ago, and everything was discounted by 50 percent. By the end of the week, almost nothing was left except some 20 pairs of kids’ shoes, and rows of spit-shined white baby shoes, reduced from $45 to $5.
Still, Henry, a dapper and gentle man, has kept the same routine. He drives in from Lexington when the sun is coming up, because glare from the sun bothers his eyes. He opens the store, says “good morning” to the plant that a customer gave him 36 years ago, and waits for the first customer.