I met Charles, the shoe man, under slightly peculiar circumstances. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was going to lunch at the new restaurant around the corner from my office. After three years of lunches in the neighborhood, I was excited to have a new option in the mix.
It was a nice lunch in a spacious, bright and shiny restaurant. (I had a salad, not important to the story, but it makes me feel better about myself so worth including.)
I’d go back there, I was thinking as I stepped down onto the curb, and snap. My flip-flop broke. (Yes I am one of those people who are okay wearing sandals in the city, though I have to admit it makes your feet incredibly dirty.)
The small piece that goes in between your toes and holds the whole front of the flip flop had snapped in half. I picked it up, tried to slip the piece back in. Back on my foot, it lasted a step and a half. Nope.
I balanced on one foot as I surveyed the surroundings, I was four blocks from my office. My eyes darted from store to store looking for something useful—jewelry store, high-end antiques, restaurant, shoe store. There it is.
I combination slid/hopped/skipped over to a store, and I gazed carefully inside to a space from a different time. Wood racks held beautiful leather shoes. A man in an apron waved for me to come in. What have I got to lose? I thought.
I hopped down the stairs into the store, the thick smell of leather in the air, my bare, dirty foot resting on a beautiful old carpet.
“Seems you’ve got a shoe problem,” the man said with a comfortable southern drawl, taking my flip-flop from me. “Not sure I can fix this.”
I liked him almost immediately. He told me his name was Charles and that they’d been making shoes for close to 100 years. He had a full head of silver hair, and he wore a jacket and tie under a thick worn apron.
I crossed to the racks. The shoes were old-school, snazzy loafers and crocodile wing tips. At the front were finished shoes, but as I went along, they became gradually less and less assembled, finally ending with strangely cut leather straps hanging next to moldings of feet and thick soles with pencil marks on them.
“Yeah, we make everything in the back,” and then like he just thought of it, “I’ve got some sneakers though. You want to try on some walking around sneakers?” As it turned out I was in the market for new sneakers. (Remember the salad? Same deal.)
Waiting, I was transported through time as I watched Charles’ associate hammer a shoe in the back. Charles returned with two boxes.
“Usually it’s a size bigger with these.”
He handed me a pair of socks, gesturing to my feet. Glancing down, surprised, I’d forgotten I was barefoot and my feet were filthy.
I sat as he laced up a pair of modern New Balance sneakers that looked completely out of place next to the rest of the handmade dress shoes.
Charles was excited by the fact that I’m an editor, and began telling me about all the people they’ve made shoes for over the years. He rattled off names—actors and filmmakers. “Remember that guy?” and “She was on that show.” Most of them I don’t recognize, but the way he talked about them and the few I did catch were impressive.
“I’ve got Marlene Dietrich’s shoes up there someplace,” he said, pointing to an older rack of used shoes. “Now, that’s Charlie Sheen,” he laughed wholeheartedly, “and you know what? He’s actually a sweet guy. But then I see him during the day when he’s trying on shoes, not late at night out on the town.” He laughed again.
Charles smoothly laced up the sneakers and slipped it over my foot, checking the size. He looked down at my other socked foot, rolled it around in his hands.
“You’ve got some bad feet, my friend.”
“Yeah,” I admit, “I know.”
“You should figure that out while you are young,” he said sagely, “They aren’t going to get better.” I nodded.
“And I’m not just telling you that so you come back for a pair of customs.”
He smiled, settling into salesman mode, it’s clear he’s a pro, but I don’t mind.
“I’m not above telling you that if you were to get a pair of our shoes, they’d fit your crazy looking feet like gloves. Think about it and come back sometime. I’ll give you a good deal.” He finished tying the lace and looked up at me. “How do those feel?”
Outside in my comfortable new sneakers I consider starting to save for an awesome pair of custom shoes. I think about how they’ll feel and look with a suit, and then I consider just how good a salesman Charles is.