A Teenager Selling Shoes

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. nash metropolitan 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, women shoe shoppingI 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 stinky feetanother 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.

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10 Comments on “A Teenager Selling Shoes

  1. Terrific. I hope you’ve had a good day today — because you’ve blessed others with this wonderful experience.

  2. Hello! I worked for Gallenkamp Shoes in high school from 1975–1978,in Greenville,Ohio. I also worked Sundays at a Gallenkamp Shoe in Piqua,Ohio. Best job I ever! Learned sooo much and meet a lot of great customers as well!

    1. As you can tell from my story, I liked the work, too. It taught me how to work hard.

  3. Hi Mr.Cotler,
    I am a fifth grade reading teacher in Cypress-Fairbanks. We are just beginning to read your 1st book in class. My students would like to ask you how long you were a shoe salesman, and did you like it? We look forward to your visit later on this month. See you soon!
    Donna Shah and Fifth Graders

  4. I don’t even remember how I found this site, but it’s cool. I worked for Gallenkamp shoes for 6 years, starting as a part timer working for Ruben Postal (who sounds a lot like Benny) in the Queenstown Store in MD. Then I went to Prince Georges Plaza, where I was an Assistant Manager. Finally Langley Park, MD where I managed the store.

    Selling shoes is a great first job. You learn to sell, and no matter what you do later in life, sales is a part of it.

    1. Indeed! I agree. The education was formative and important. Thanks for the comment, Ed.

  5. I started working for Gallenkamps in Ogden, Utah when I was 15 years old back in 1970. I worked there till I graduated from High School in 1972.
    There was an old short guy who was the manager (can’t remember his name) but I really looked up to him. He was an excellent teacher of the trade.
    I worked two doors away from a Bakers Shoe Store where the competition between the two businesses was ferocious at times. We would stand out on the street and watch for the women going into their store and then causally walk down past their windows to see what their customers were trying on. When they came out empty handed we already had an idea of what did and did not work. We always closed the deal.
    You forgot to mention how much fun it was to climb into the display windows to fetch the exact size needed for a customer and what a balancing act it was to get there. Too funny now.
    Conversing with the many customers and knowing that they would always come to me first when looking for shoes was a great boost.
    I worked with other independent shoe stores for several more years and always kept close contact with the owners and styles they sold.
    I came to your site with great memories of the old days and wondered if there is still a market for this kind of store. Everything has become so impersonal in this industry and I have often considered opening a store just for the sheer fun of it.
    Thanks for the memories, especially the spiffs. What a great marketing tool. I would make 25 to 50 dollars on a good Saturday.
    I truly enjoyed your site.
    Thank you

  6. Ron—
    Very similar story! Thanks for the long comment.
    My boss NEVER let me touch the window displays. He was completely in charge of that.
    Spiffs were PMs in our store. (But I’ve heard the term.)
    I was working more than a decade earlier than you, so the hourly pay was lower. I never made more than $25 on a good day…except for the Saturday before Easter, when all the moms would arrive with kids in tow.

  7. Just happen to be searching on what happen to Gallenkamp shoe, your website popped up which by the way i did enjoy. My father worked for this company over 30 years here in Fresno, Ca in downtown lots of memories my best is when i found out that the mirrors on the floor were tilted so the ladies didn’t know the shoe salesmen where looking under there dress while she was admiring her shoes. ( when ladies only wore dresses to shop 50’s, 60’s.) i still go by the old Gallenkamp shoe store downtown which is now clothing store but it still has the Gallenkamp stamp set in cement as you walk to the glass doors with he same handles.

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