An obsession with shoes is often regarded as frivolous and indulgent, a la Carrie Bradshaw (of Sex and the City fame), so my obsession is something I generally keep in the closet, in pairs. I’m exaggerating, but I do like shoes, maybe because the feel of a substantial sole makes me feel grounded.
Then again, it could be inherited — both my parents loved shoes. Dad was a schoolteacher and later high school principal who walked miles in the hallways over the years. I loved the heft of his leather-soled wingtips and the way stones would crunch to powder underfoot.
My mother loved shoes as well. She wore a creamy white suit for her 1957 wedding with a robin’s egg blue camisole and matching blue kid leather pumps. They were gorgeous.
My favourite pastime when I was a little girl was to go into Mom’s closet and clomp around the kitchen in her shoes — brown suede with bows, shrimp-coloured snakeskin, butter yellow leather — pretending I was as beautiful as she was.
In those days, craftsmanship was impeccable, the materials of good quality (no synthetic knockoffs) and the service one could expect not only in shoe stores but most other stores was welcoming and gracious. Whether you appeared sophisticated or undistinguished, beautiful or plain, you were accorded the same treatment. That is not always the case these days.
Some businesses cultivate an elite clientele that becomes almost like a private club. I’ve walked into such stores and had the feeling I was crashing an invite-only party when stopping in to browse. A couple of tittering insiders and the shopkeeper turn to give their appraisal (she’s probably in the wrong place), and go back to their conversation. One such day, though, after I picked up a shoe the brand of which I knew well, the young clerk marched over, as if on a mission.
“Those are made in Spain,” she exclaimed triumphantly. I nodded and smiled. As if dissatisfied with my response, she said again, “This shipment just arrived from Spain.” I remained dispassionate. She tried again, with increased volume: THEY ARE FROM SPAIN. Perhaps she looked at my gray hair and thought I was deaf as well as obtuse.
This new age of exclusivity features stores that issue invitations to announce the acquisition of new brands. The merchandise is indeed in stock, but only those who attend a special soiree are allowed to buy. New styles are presented on silver platters and elite patrons not only feast on wares, they have the satisfaction of knowing they have indulged before we plebeians have even gotten the chance to look.
There’s a reason I’m thinking about this now. It’s the end of June and in days gone by the end of June signified two important events: the last day of school, and my Auntie Marg’s June 30 birthday, which was always a joyous celebration. She died in 2004 and I think of her more at this time of year.
Auntie Marg was beloved by all, but the kids especially adored her. A single woman who looked after children for much of her life — a nanny by today’s standards — her patience for reading books or playing was matched only by her endless supply of cookies and love.
Marg was a tiny woman who had a spinal deformity that resulted in a prominent hump on her back. She was self-conscious about her physical appearance. For those of us who knew and loved her, she was beautiful, but she mostly did not feel that way and I understand how she worried about the scrutiny of strangers. So it was gratifying for me to remember the city shopping trips she went on with my mom (I got to tag along) and how well Marg was treated wherever she went. Marg loved shoes as much as we did, and her feet were slender and delicate. The shoe store was always the last stop, and the most fun. The staff waited on Marg with respect and gentleness, taking delight in her love of shoes and making her feel beautiful, at least for a little while.
I was trying to imagine my aunt feeling comfortable in some of the stores I’ve visited recently, but I couldn’t. And you might be thinking, what difference does it make? It’s only shopping. Maybe so, but I think it is also indicative of a general societal shift in attitude: it’s not so much about feeling better about yourself as getting pumped up with the feeling of being better than everyone else.
The store we shopped at with Auntie Marg has been in existence for 76 years and though the original family of owners is long gone, their approach is still one that shows wisdom in how they treat others. Respect and kindness never go out of fashion. If new entrepreneurs want to be around very long, they would do well to pay attention.