Marty Stein and Benny Silverstein operated shoe stores in Oxnard, my California childhood’s small town. Marty’s store (Kirby’s Shoes) was on A Street’s east side, right next to my father’s men’s & boys’ clothing store. Benny’s store (GallenKamp’s Shoes) was directly across the street. Marty carried a marginally higher-priced line, but in a town that lived off three military bases and farming, they competed for the same clientele. The men were not friends, but they ate lunch together at least once a week, at which they spoke only lies.
Both Benny and Marty were short, but that was the only characteristic they shared. Benny talked tough and fast; Marty presence was soft and almost frightened. Benny drove a green and white Nash Metropolitan; Marty had a big Chrysler. Marty was dapper and married to a woman who was invisible even when she was present. They were childless. Benny was a bachelor whose social life, if he had one, must have existed outside Oxnard.
Marty was an active member of the very small and spread-out Jewish community in Ventura County and was a regular at the sole synagogue’s Friday night services. No one ever saw Benny on the weekends. I think he often went to Vegas. Marty and Benny had one thing in common. When they ate lunch together, they lied about shoes.
Benny: So, how’s business?
Marty: Terrible. [Terrific.]
Benny: It’s terrible for me, too. [I’m having a record week.]
Marty: So how’re you doing with house shoes?
Benny: Can’t keep them in stock. [Even though business is great, slipper sales are way off.]
Marty: Good for you. I’m going to have to mark mine down. [Unlike you, I really can’t keep them in stock.]
It was a game they played. Each knew the other was lying.
When I was 15, I got a job working for Benny. It was my first real job, and under Benny’s tutelage, I learned what it meant to work hard. When business was non-existent, I unpacked merchandise shipments and stocked shelves. When it was slow, I started at one end of the store and made certain that every box was ordered by style and size. When it was brisk, I waited on several customers at once, measuring feet or tying shoes, then moving to the next customer while the shopper paced around assessing the fit. On really busy days, like the Saturday before Easter, I might have a half-dozen customers, almost all women, whom I flitted rapidly among, but with order and intent, like a honeybee working the blossoms. I earned $1.55 per hour, with extras added for selling PMs, those shoes with colored stickers on the boxes. Each sticker gave you Pocket Money, from ten cents up to a dollar depending upon sticker color. They were affixed to out-of-style or one-of-a-kind shoes. Benny used PMs to motivate the sales force to clean out old stock.
Benny made it clear that it was unforgivable to let any customer leave the store without making a purchase. If a matron had tried on several pairs of shoes and then gave an indication that she was ready to walk out, I was to ask her to wait a moment…”Ma’am, I have another idea”…and then call out, “Benny, can you show this customer the 99s.” That was code for, “I’m losing her. Help!” Benny would then immediately add my customer to however many he was waiting on at the moment. Invariably, a few minutes later I would look up from whatever zapata I was lacing, and he’d be sliding a box of shoes into a bag and ringing the sale up. He was that good. Someone once told me that it’s like the Bar Mitzvah’s rite of passage: every Jewish boy will sell shoes at least once in his life. I did it…and actually liked the work. Even the unwashed feet didn’t bother me.