David Caplan, 7/31/2017
Current Occupation: Editorial associate
Former Occupation: Writer, proofreader, retail store manager
Contact Information: A Chicago native, I studied English and writing at the University of Illinois. After 12 years in the retail shoe business, I started working in the publishing industry. Over nearly three decades, I have been a proofreader, writer, and editorial associate. Outside of work, I have had pieces published in a number of newspapers and magazines.
Kinney Shoes 1975
The men’s shoes had high heels and bulbous toes, like something out of Yellow Submarine. The patterns were confusing, with their overlaid pieces and seams and multiple colors. I had never worn such shoes, and I didn’t know how the other salesmen could stand to wear them—they felt hard and steep when I tried them on.
The women’s section was even more difficult to learn. But most of the teenage girls who came in on summer afternoons bought one of two styles, a platform sandal, which was tall, or something called a water buffalo sandal, which was flat as a board and sold for five dollars. I knew where each of those was located in the back room and there was no confusing them.
The junk was present in great variety. Junk for everyone in the family, toddlers and teens, women and men. There were a few items of better quality, like the approved nurse’s shoe and the men’s tie shoe with a leather sole and upper.
I tried to hurry. One of the salesmen had told me that if you let customers sit too long, they get impatient and walk out. After that I had a recurring dream in which I went into the back room and wandered the aisles trying to find the right shoes. When I finally emerged, someone would tell me the customer was gone, at which point I would wake up.
I thought I had found the right style, but just to be sure I also grabbed one that looked similar. My teenage male customer, typically silent and lanky, made up his mind quickly. Once I found the shoes in the back room, waiting on customers wasn’t bad, and they bought from me as often as from any of the other salesmen. It was the times between customers that went the slowest, when I stood around with the others in a cluster by the entrance to the back room.
I had to lie to get the job. Toward the end of my first week home from school, I spotted an ad in the Tribune for a cutter in a shoe factory. Finally a real job, not some scam phone operation or door-to-door sales. The man who came out to the lobby of the small factory building in an old industrial area northwest of downtown Chicago accurately sized me up as a college student. He explained that it wouldn’t pay to hire me just for the summer, that it took time to learn how to match the pieces of leather and avoid the weak or rough spots. The cutter he was replacing was good and had done the job for several years.
I tried to convince him to hire me anyway. The prospect of living with my father for the summer and not having a job must have shown on my face. “Come on back, let’s talk for a minute,” the man said.
He was around my dad’s age and probably from the same West Side Jewish milieu, as evidenced in the voice, the manner, the hustle. His office was just a cubicle with tall walls, but he had the self-assurance of an owner. He wanted to know what kind of work I’d done before, and I said warehouse and factory. To my dad the jobs I’d had didn’t count as work. Real work was putting on a tie and talking to people.
The man said I should get a job selling shoes. He was definite about this. He said that was the way he had started out. He said I was presentable and it would be good experience.
He might as well have asked me to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was the first week of June already, no one wanted to hire college students, and I had no experience in selling. But the man spoke with such certainty—he even said I was presentable. Afraid that the shot of confidence he’d given me would soon wear off, I drove straight to the outdoor shopping center near my father’s apartment in a blue-collar northwest suburb, parked in the empty parking lot of a summer morning, and walked into Kinney Shoes, where I asked to speak to the manager.
Tim came out of the back room and greeted me with his optimistic smile. He was 26 years old and had a tall, friendly, all-American presence. He wanted to know if I was a college student and I admitted I was but said I was going to take the coming year off. To add verisimilitude to the story, I said I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in, so I had decided to take a year off and work. Tim invited me to come in back and talk.
The back room of a retail store was foreign territory to me. I had often wondered how people got jobs in stores and seemed so comfortable in them. I was excited to enter but feared I was going to be exposed as a liar at any moment and shown the door. “Are you sure you’re not going back to school in the fall?” Tim asked me. I said I was sure.
Tim said he needed someone full-time for when the summer employees went back to school. Business was slow in the summer, but I would have an opportunity to make money at back-to-school and Christmas time. While it was slow would be a good time for me to learn. He would schedule me for as many hours as he could. “Dress sharp,” Tim said. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock.”
That night when my dad came home from work, I told him I had gotten a job at Kinney’s for the summer. He did a double-take, as if he hadn’t heard me correctly. I repeated myself. “Now you’re doing something,” he said.
I didn’t tell my dad about the man at the shoe factory, or that I had to lie to get the job, or that I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next eight weeks.
Tim had served in the Coast Guard for several years. I suppose he chose this as an alternative to being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam—his age group faced a set of difficult choices. He ran the store like a ship, and the bridge was his desk in the back room. A large chart was spread across a drafting table next to the desk, but it was for accounting rather than navigation. The rows and columns on the big ledger sheet broke down what everyone in the store sold by category and what everyone in the store made, including Tim.
On payday Tim met with each salesman and went over his sales. My overall dollar volume was about the same as everyone else’s, but I lagged in my percentage of accessory sales. I was willing to lead the customers to the table where bundles of socks were always on special, but I was diffident at the counter with shoe care products. For example, we were supposed to sell a tin of mink oil with the men’s white patent slip-on. I thought rubbing mink oil on a vinyl shoe was absurd. Mink oil was meant to waterproof and condition leather. The sales pitch was that mink oil would keep the patent from cracking. Mink oil was only a two-dollar sale, and I figured it wouldn’t make or break the store. The first time I sold the white patent, I didn’t even suggest it. The next time Tim happened to be on the floor, and he jumped in with a demonstration. Breaking a tin open, he used his index finger to rub a dab of the greasy stuff on the vamp of the white shoe and accentuated his handiwork with a big smile. Sold.
I liked Tim but didn’t understand how he could place such importance on a dubious care product for a ridiculous looking shoe. I wasn’t going to be judged on such nonsense.
During the summer the store had a full crew. Bill had just graduated from high school and was starting junior college in the fall. He was a good-looking kid with perfect Andy Gibb feathered hair parted in the middle. In his blue polyester suit and heeled shoes, he looked like he was going to a wedding or dance.
Matt was a Kinney’s veteran who had just finished his first year of college and returned for the summer. He was considered the top salesman, and I had heard Tim say that Matt was always welcome to come back. Selling was a funny thing. Matt hustled but wasn’t particularly nice to people. He sold like an automaton, repeating the same lines over and over with a touch of pressure and impatience. His conversation off the floor was on the crude side.
Robbie, a slightly built kid with a wide smile, had just finished high school and was still deciding whether to take junior college classes or work for Tim full-time during the coming year. Sometimes I asked Robbie for help finding merchandise. I felt he was my only friend in the store.
The assistant manager, Nick, was a thirty-something guy who used to drive a truck and was now trying to break into retail management. Nick was unhappy because he wasn’t making enough money, and he lacked Tim’s grace with people.
Tim’s part-time cashier and bookkeeper was Beth, a junior-college student whose petite frame belied the important role she had, or believed she had, in the store. Her duties included collecting the cash register tapes and penciling in the figures on the big chart in back. Her smiles were only for Tim.
The stock boy, Chris, was quiet and hard working. A few afternoons a week, he’d come in with his long hair tied in a bandanna and tackle the stacked-up cartons of merchandise that had been delivered.
In addition to Beth, there were two high-school girls who worked as cashiers evenings and weekends.
I owned one sportcoat, a brown herringbone tweed I had bought by myself at the Marshall Field’s department store in lakefront, cultured Evanston, some 10 miles and a world away from this shopping center. I had bought a wool tie to go with it, and I had a pair of olive pants that matched the coat reasonably well. In high school I had always felt good when I wore these clothes to temple, but now they felt hot and unstylish. Everything was different then—my mom was still alive, our family lived in a house, I went to Evanston Township High School. Now I was marooned with my dad in a transient apartment complex that felt far from home.
The only dress shoes I owned were a pair of plain brown oxfords, which were out of the question. I also had a pair of brown crepe-soled slip-ons. They weren’t true dress shoes but would have to do for the moment.
One of my first hurdles on the job was meeting the district manager. Tim had told me to be sharp on the day of the district manager’s visit. I was sure the district manager would see through me, but it turned out he was an unsmiling guy in a navy polyester suit who briefly shook my hand and then turned his attention back to Tim. With his charisma and easy manner, Tim easily outshined the DM.
My dad had told me a store was like a family. It was true in a way. The store was a family, and Tim was the father. He invited everyone to his place for the Fourth of July, but I didn’t go. The next day Robbie said, “You should have come, everyone was there.” I asked what they did, and he said they just sat around and ate and drank beer and had a good time.
Waiting on customers was a relief from hanging out with the guys near the entrance to the back room on long, slow summer afternoons. From our vantage point, we had a clear view of the front door. That summer the FM radio on the store’s sound system constantly played 10 CC’s I’m Not in Love, along with generous helpings of the still-popular instrumental Tubular Bells.
The guys talked a lot about TV shows I hadn’t seen. Somewhere along the way I had dropped out of the television loop. I watched the occasional Kojack episode or late-night movie with my dad, and that was about it. I exhausted myself trying to think of things to say. When the cashier girls were there, it was social hour, and the guys were adept at flirting with them.
For lunch I ate a sandwich at Kresge’s and then walked around. The shopping center had a Twilight Zone quality of eerie desertion on summer days. Suits were perennially on sale two-for-one at Richman Brothers. A one-man Regal Shoes, not much larger than a kiosk, was run by a kid with a wide grin who wore incredibly tall platform shoes.
If we were working the opening shift, Robbie and I went to get coffee for everyone. The restaurant was the one place with life in the godforsaken mall. Robbie would linger and chat with a waitress who worked the counter. She was an older woman, somewhere in her early to mid-twenties, thin with a washed-out look but a big lipsticked smile. Once I asked Robbie why he talked to her so much. “She’s a good kid,” he said. “Has a lot of problems. Single, with a kid to raise.” Robbie was worldly beyond his 18 years. The waitress was always happy to see him.
Business was slow and Tim’s wife was going to have a baby, so he often worked mornings and then took the rest of the day off. The store ran well without him. I figured Tim’s distraction worked to my advantage and would help me achieve my goal of eight weeks.
A few times when Tim was around he would show me things, like how to bar-lace a gym shoe for display. Kinney’s had come out with its own brand of athletic shoes called NBA. They looked like cheap Adidas knockoffs and didn’t fit exactly right, but Tim said they were an important effort for the company because there was future growth in athletic footwear. He mentioned that as an experiment, the company had recently opened a few stores devoted entirely to athletic shoes.
One day Tim talked to me about floor awareness. He said he didn’t like to sit on the fitting stool—he stayed upright so he could monitor the floor. At back-to-school time, it would be necessary to double up, take two customers at a time. I was just passing through and had difficulty taking any of his lessons seriously.
When the store suddenly came alive one evening, it was just me and Nick, the assistant manager, closing with a cashier. By that time I had a month of experience under my belt, and my knowledge of the inventory had improved somewhat. Among other things, I sold a nurse’s shoe, one of our higher priced items, and managed to double up without losing a single customer. When the rush was over, the floor was a disaster area, littered with shoe boxes I had brought out. I still wasn’t adept enough to put away unwanted try-ons when I made trips to the back room. The evening had flown by, and I felt satisfied as I cleaned up.
Tim gave me a big smile the next morning and said, “I see you had a good night.” I feigned indifference at his recognition, but the truth was that it meant something to me.
In our meeting on payday at the end of my sixth week, Tim said I would have to improve my accessory sales or he’d have to let me go. I suppose I deserved his ultimatum—he had to know if I was willing to give the effort he required. Still, it hurt, like a sudden slap I felt throughout my body.
“But I can sell shoes,” I managed to say.
“You’ve been able to sell shoes since you started,” Tim said. He left it at that.
Tim took the next few days off to be with his wife and newborn daughter. Determined not to be fired, I told Nick I was quitting and this would be my last week. Tim called me into the back room when he returned on Friday. I said I had decided to go back to school. “I sort of thought you would all along,” Tim said.
I had made it seven weeks, one short of my goal.
When I walked out of the store for the last time, I thought, thank goodness that’s over, now I can get back to my real life. But back at school I sometimes wondered if it really would have been so bad to spend the year working for Tim and learning to be someone he could rely on. If I had it to do over, I would have gone to Tim’s Fourth of July gathering and maybe I would have learned to properly form a gym shoe for display.
The following spring I stopped in the store. The guys I was so worried about fitting in with were gone. I asked for Tim, and he took a few minutes to chat. I let him know how close I was to graduating—I needed two classes and was going to take them over the summer. He asked what I was going to do then.
“I’m going to be a writer.”
Tim considered this. “We have to get you a career.”
“I just stopped in to say hello,” I said.
And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. After college I drifted back to the shoe business. I thought about going to see Tim, but something held me back—maybe it was the fear of letting him down again or the dead-end atmosphere of the shopping center or a little of both. I wound up working for the Florsheim Shoe Company for 10 years, mostly downtown, first as a salesman and then as manager of small stores with a few employees. Managing was always hard for me—it took everything I had.
Over the years I wondered what had happened to Tim. The internet finally made tracing him possible. I found several stories in footwear publications and general business news. Tim had been correct when he said there was growth in athletic footwear. He had moved over to Kinney’s sister company Foot Locker, the venture that had started the year before I worked for him. From what I could tell, he soon became a district manager and was instrumental in building the new company. He ended up as president and CEO of the U.S. division of the athletic shoe retailer. His journey from manager of a backwater shoe store to company president ensconced in a Midtown Manhattan office might seem unlikely, but it made perfect sense to me. He was the best manager I had ever known.