Kevin Riordan: At the Shoe Horn, they're staying in step

Ed Davis measures a foot using a Brannock Device. "I like people to get the proper fit," he said.
Ed Davis measures a foot using a Brannock Device. "I like people to get the proper fit," he said. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: August 23, 2011

"I'm an old shoe-dog," Ed Davis announces, bustling me into a seat at the Shoe Horn.

"I sit 'em down and fit 'em," he says of the customers at his Medford store. "I'm from the old school."

Immediately, I can't resist putting my foot in a Brannock Device, one of those intricate foot-measuring contraptions that fascinated me in my Buster Brown days.

The devices are scattered among comfy chairs, fitting stools, and angled floor-level mirrors at the Shoe Horn, where shoe boxes rise to the ceiling, a cobbler labors out back, and the proprietor will custom-dye shoes to match that special dress.

"Go ahead and write this down," Davis, 73, says for the first of what will be many times during my visit. "I like people to get the proper fit. You take care of your feet . . . they'll take care of you forever."

A proud native of the Kensington section of Philadelphia ("I was born under the shade of the Frankford El"), Davis lives in the Leisuretown community in Southampton Township with Joan, his wife of 40 years. She and their son Shawn, who has Down syndrome, pitch in at the store. Another son, Frank, lives in Cherry Hill and works in the car business.

Davis, a grandfather of two, says he was 14 or 15 when he got his first job in shoes at the Ferry Farmers Market at Delaware Avenue and Front Street in Philly. Nearly 60 years later, his low-key yet speedy salesman's patter is still pitch-perfect.

"I sold good shoes for $4 a pair," Davis recalls. "It was easier to sell them back then. Now people don't wear many dress shoes, to go to church or whatever. Now they wear what I call Sunday-Monday shoes every day."

Davis later went to work at Paragon, a local shoe chain that had a store on Broadway in downtown Camden. Later, he sold shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, where the famously rotund comic Totie Fields was one of his customers.

In 1971, when Davis opened the original Shoe Horn in Marlton, parents bought hard-soled baby shoes and little girls wore shiny black patent leather footwear for special occasions.

"I still carry them," Davis says. "I like them."

He was there before sneakers took over the world, before the arrival of big-box, or "rack," shoe stores, before people threw shoes away when soles got worn.

Not only styles have come and gone in the last 40 years. Many of the great names in shoe manufacturing have gone out of business in the United States.

"Hardly any shoes are made here now. They're all from China," Davis says. "It's a shame."

Speaking of which, don't get him started on flip-flops.

"They're made to be worn on the beach!" Davis says, or more accurately, exclaims. "The child's feet will be ruined. I tell the parents."

Davis swears by "good leather uppers," not plastic or - worse - urethane, which he says with disdain.

But the most unbelievable, shameful change in the business he loves?

"The Internet. Buying shoes online," Davis says. "How do you know that they fit? Am I right? You can't do that!"

A customer arrives. He knows her by name, like many of his regulars.

Lynn Schilling, retired principal of Moorestown High School, has brought in a broken leather dog leash.

The two talk a bit about pets. Schilling, a 70-year-old resident of Mount Laurel, is still grieving the recent loss of a German shepherd named Etta.

She says she appreciates Davis' personal service and his "old-fashioned" way of doing business.

Sitting back down, Davis starts to talk about another of his passions: dyeing shoes.

"Who does this anymore?" he says. "They bring dresses in, I match the colors. I mix the colors. I'll dye the shoes and the purse to match.

"Other stores have you pick from a chart, but I mix the colors. It's artistic. It's good money, because nobody does it. And I take my time. I take pride."

The door opens.

It's the sound of customers.

Davis, who moves as fast as he talks, races to the front of the store.

"How you doin', ladies?" the old shoe-dog says. "May I help you?"


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

 

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