When city native James Martin opened his North Adams Co-op Shoe Store at 113 Main Street on March 2, 1902, he wouldn’t have even dreamed that it would last into the next century. When Eileen Clark, 41, routinely opened Martin’s Shoe Store on a Saturday morning exactly 100 years later, she continued a 95-year-old family tradition that started when her grandfather Matthew Dempsey, then 17, went to work for Mr. Martin in 1907. By that time, the store had moved to 20 Holden Street and was called James Martin Shoe Store.
Dempsey and a partner bought the business in 1939. In the mid-sixties, John (Jack) Dempsey took over his father’s store. He remembers working there after school.
“Customers wouldn’t keep the boxes in those days, so they would pile up in the cellar. I’d break them up, and when we had a couple of cartons full, we’d sell them to Shapiro’s Salvage for a dollar a carton. I also put shoes back in boxes after customers tried them on, and unpacked stock. We used to get 40 or 50 cases of rubber boots in the fall.”
“I did that all the way through high school, except when I was playing sports or chasing girls. Then I went away to college (Norwich University in Vermont). Every time I came home for vacation, my father would put me to work. By then, I was waiting on customers.”
According to Jack, his father graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1907 and went to work for James Wall, owner of the Wall-Streeter Shoe Company on Union Street. But they didn’t get along very well due to what Jack refers to as “a clash of two Irish tempers.” So he went to work for Martin and stayed until 1927, except for two years of Army duty in World War I. With a little savings and plans to marry, he opened his own shoe store just a few doors down from his former boss. When the stock market crashed in 1929, he closed and returned to Martin’s. Ten years later, he was a store owner again.
“Jim Wall offered my father a $15,000 loan to help him buy the business from Mr. Martin,” recalls Jack. “But a man from Holyoke named Pat Montague raised the money and became a silent partner. Pat worked at the store on the day of the grand opening, and that was the last they saw of him, except when he came up to collect his 75% share and a pair of free shoes every so often.”
In 1958, after two years in the Army, Jack returned to North Adams and helped his father make arrangements to buy out Montague, who was now making big bucks as the creator of the famous Mr. Clean ad campaign.
“I liked the Army and thought about staying in,” says Jack, “but my wife wanted to settle down and have a family. My father put up the money. All I owned was a TV and a car. When I looked at his books, I could see that business was getting bad. We were competing with nine shoe outlets on Main Street, including Endicott-Johnson and Wein’s.”
“My father and I had a couple of tough years. I was unhappy with the way the business was being run. His bookkeeping system was antiquated, but he refused to change it. I finally wrote him a long letter and gave it to him after work. We were walking to the parking lot the next evening, and he said, ‘I read your letter. You’re right. The business is yours.’ In 1965, we moved to 85 Main, and sales skyrocketed. He finally retired in 1972 due to health problems. He would come over every morning, sit in the store, and read the paper. He died in 1974.”
“I had great respect for him, but my childhood was difficult. He was 44 when I was born, and that’s kind of old. He didn’t have a lot of time for me. He was always at the store. Back in the ‘60s, I persuaded him to take a day off here and there. He would get the paper and sit on the porch in his coat and tie. That’s just the way he was.”
Jack’s daughter Eileen started working in the store in 1976 when she was 16, but she didn’t care much for it. “I was very shy, but Dad put me on the floor to wait on customers anyway. I used to cry on Saturday mornings when my mother would get me out of bed to go to work. I’d say, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t talk to those people.’ I would come in Thursday nights, too. In my senior year, I was coming in three or fours days a week after school. It was tough. I couldn’t go to the football games. But I liked making money. If I wanted to go shopping on North Street in Pittsfield, I always had cash in my pocket.”
Eileen graduated from North Adams State in 1982. “I was going to study physical therapy, but I didn’t get into the school I wanted. So I decided I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to do something that was, you know, better than the shoe business. But you had to get a master’s degree to get anywhere, and I was tired of going to school. I told my father, ‘I’ll give you a hand while I figure out what I’m going to do.’”
It wasn’t long before she was beginning to warm up to the business. “I started going to the vendor shows in Boston and Albany. It was a lot of fun. We’d get a hotel and eat out. Dad broke me in. He would give me a category of shoes to buy. Pretty soon, I was doing it all. I even loved waiting on customers.”
Eight years ago, Jack was pushing 60 and getting tired of dealing with creditors and the long hours. “Besides the store, I was also in the National Guard for 32 years. I was the commander of the Vermont Guard for a while. The last five years before I retired, I was spending three weekends a month on the road. So I finally turned the business over to Eileen.”
Just like Jack, Eileen grew up in the shadow of her father’s store. “He missed a lot of family things. I don’t remember having a vacation until I was 11 years old. But Mom didn’t work, so she was always home.”
Eileen says she puts her family first. “I give myself two days off a week: Wednesday and Sunday. Otherwise, I’m here 9 to 5, or 9 to 8. I do some of the work at home, like the books. My daughter is going to be nine and my son will be 13. I take my kids to one of the vendor shows every season. They come in sometimes on Thursday nights and have dinner with us. My son tells me he wants to work here.”
As any regular customer will tell you, Jack hasn’t disappeared. “It’s kind of a place to hang out,” he jokes. “I take care of the daily book work most mornings. I do a little of the computer work and the inventory. I wait on some of the customers I’ve been serving for the last 50 years. Several of them will call and want to know when I’ll be there. I fit people at the nursing homes. I see a lot of my old customers there. I remember one lady over at Sweetbrook. She said, ‘You must be Matty Dempsey’s boy. I used to date your father in high school.’”
Despite the struggle to survive on Main Street, Eileen plans to stick it out. “I’ll be here 26 years this July. It’s a family business and we’ve invested a lot in it. It’s my history. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘What am I doing? I could be working for someone and making a lot more money.’ But I’ve never thought of leaving. I’ll go to the point of being the only one here, if that’s what it takes.”
Jack attributes the decline in business to urban renewal, the closing of Sprague Electric, and the malls. “There were 27 businesses on the other side of the street that were demolished. That included James Hunter Machine. That took away a lot of traffic. We did a huge business with the women at Sprague’s. They would come on the street every day on their lunch breaks.”
In order to compete with the malls, Eileen has to keep up with the trends. “The traditional women’s market has gone way down, and athletic shoes are the big seller now. Everything is casual. We used to have everything you could find in men’s dress shoes. Now it’s loafers, boat shoes, and sneakers. It’s always changing. I have to go to a lot more shows. It’s also important for me to be out there on the floor every day. Even when I’m doing the paper work at my desk, I’m always listening for the door. Fortunately I have two women, Marlene and Karen, who have been with me a long time.”
One thing Martin’s provides that the malls can’t is personal service. Eileen and Jack take pride in that, and it’s reflected in the loyalty of their longtime customers. Eileen says that customers who have known her for years will come in and say, “What have you got for me? You always know exactly what I want.”
Knowing what customers want includes remembering the sizes they wear. “Mayor (John) Barrett wears 9 ½ Davids,” says Eileen, who admits to looking at the feet of people she meets. “Congressman (John) Olver wears 11 ½ Charlies.” So what’s a David and a Charlie? Shoe lingo, of course. To be sure their vendors don’t misunderstand phone orders, they calls sizes A through E: Albert, Benny, Charlie, David, and Eddie.
Eileen smiles at Jack and tells me: “Once in a while, a customer will say, ‘Your father knows what size I wear.’ I had an elderly gentleman who looked at me and said, ‘You’re new here.’ I said that I wasn’t. I ended up selling him a pair of shoes and ordering him two pairs of rubbers. When he left, he said, ‘Where’s that guy who used to work here?’ I said, ‘You mean Jack? He’s my father.’ And he said, ‘No wonder you’re such a good salesperson.’ We wound up talking for 20 minutes about the old times.”
She finds it strange to be referring to the old times already. “I’m fitting babies whose parents I fit when they were babies. That’s scary.”
Update: Martin’s sold its last pair of shoes in early 2004.