Diane Mastrull: Shoe mogul hears the call of the footlights

Benjamin Lovell (center), owner of five namesake shoe stores, rehearsing in "The Pirates of Penzance."
Benjamin Lovell (center), owner of five namesake shoe stores, rehearsing in "The Pirates of Penzance." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 19, 2013

Have you ever been in a shoe store and been struck by the similarities with theater? The precisely aimed lighting? The purposeful delivery of the salespeople? The shoes as props?

I haven't, either.

But to Benjamin Lovell, the parallels are as obvious as a well-buffed wingtip. That's why the footwear purveyor of 40 years, with five namesake stores in Philadelphia, Glen Mills, and Haddonfield, is as comfortable on stage as he is sizing someone for Allen Edmonds oxfords or Thierry Rabotin ballet flats.

"Selling shoes is a kind of theater," Lovell said one morning last week, discussing the synergies between his dual pursuits. "Salespeople need to have a passion for what's going on - the same as people in any good theater production."

And then he tucked a replica flintlock pistol in his belt and assumed his position stage right at Bristol Riverside Theatre, where the cast of The Pirates of Penzance was rehearsing. Opening night for the contemporary take on Gilbert & Sullivan's comedic operetta is Tuesday, the start of a six-week run through April 28.

Lovell is playing Samuel, second-in-command to the Pirate King. At 63, he said, he is the oldest cast member. But at rehearsal, he was no laggard, keeping up step-for-step with fellow pirates nearly 40 years his junior as they ran through the aisles waving swords and guns, as pirates are wont to do.

Quite a stretch from his small-business role at Benjamin Lovell Shoes, the Wilmington-based company he started in 1988. And that's the point.

"It gets me out of myself. I can be someone different from who I am," said Lovell, who finds drama performances especially fulfilling. "Just hearing an audience be really quiet and listening to what you say is an amazing buzz."

Performing, said Lovell, is "in the blood." His late father, Percy, was a high school music teacher who went on to be a music professor at Newcastle University and "had a great love for Gilbert & Sullivan." His mother, Mary, now 90, played violin for amateur shows and with chamber-music groups.

Lovell started acting at 18 in community theater. Parts in professional productions began about five years ago and have included a repeat gig as Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmastime at the Walnut Street Theatre. He also has played butler/clock Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast.

"I play fussy little men very well," Lovell said, laughing. His favorite role is Charlie Baker, the shy science-fiction copy editor for a book-publishing house in The Foreigner - a part, he said, he is now too old to play.

Shoes brought Lovell to the United States from his native England in 1981 as part of a job with the global footwear titan Clarks. Lovell would later conclude that he and the corporate way of doing business weren't, in industry parlance, a good fit.

He opened his first Philadelphia store in 1991 on South Street near Third, where it remains. The company would strike it big when it opened a second store on Main Street in Manayunk in 1994, from which Benjamin Lovell handled "the good-looking, comfort-shoe business for the western suburbs," its owner said.

His inventory evolved with the shoe trade, which at that time went from "European comfort" - Birkenstocks - to more fashionable wear made by Mephisto, Wolke, and Dansko, among others.

The company's biggest break would come in 1999, when a shoe retailer near Rittenhouse Square moved, giving Lovell an opportunity for a Center City presence. He leaped at it, opening a store at 18th and Sansom Streets.

"That store really put us on the map," providing weekday, daytime customers that Manayunk and South Street didn't, Lovell said. "People were coming in at lunchtime or on the way to the train."

The suburban expansion began about 2002 with a store in Glen Eagle Square shopping center in Glen Mills, followed two years later by one in Haddonfield.

"Then we did the thing you should never do," Lovell said. "We jumped too far - we went to Baltimore." And failed. The store closed at the end of its five-year lease in 2010.

The chain has held at five stores since, and will stay there "until we see the end of the recession - a real end," he said.

With no new stores to open, and a staff of 30 employees whom Lovell credits with enabling him to answer acting's call, he has more time for the stage.

He considers it a life-balancer, something all small-business owners should have: "It gets me out of the house, which means I'm not looking at balance sheets all night."

As John Holden, chief operating officer at Benjamin Lovell Shoes, sees it: "Acting is the only thing Ben is more passionate about than shoes . . . maybe! I'm glad he found a group of us at BLS that has that same passion for shoes to allow him to pursue his dream of acting."

It turns out Lovell's acting has been a boon for the shoe business. Each show he appears in usually has a cast of 25, and "they will all go to the stores and have a look at the shoes" when they're in town, Lovell said.

For audiences, the shows are often the first chance to see the man whose name they've been familiar with for years - through shopping.

The Pirates of Penzance is Lovell's first acting experience at the Bristol theater ( www.brtstage.org or 215-785-0100) - an event management eagerly anticipates, given he has a following, albeit in footwear.

Said Greg Harley, the theater's audience-development coordinator, "Once they know he's here, it's a great opportunity for the theater to sell tickets."

Diane Mastrull:

Hear Benjamin Lovell talk about selling shoes and playing a role, then see him in rehearsal for "The Pirates of Penzance" in a video at www.philly.com/business

Contact Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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