The City I Love: There's no business like shoe business
It's been about 10 years, said Marc Abecassis, since the Brown Shoe Co. of St. Louis has offered its line of children's shoe products. But the façade of Jim's House of Shoes on North Street still boasts the mascots the company used for decades to promote the foot wear. Buster Brown, with his blonde hair and Dutch-boy haircut, is proudly presented with his dog, Tige, a pitbull terrier whose eyes would suggest six cups of strong coffee before sunup.
Abecassis is the longtime owner of Jim's House of Shoes, and has been involved with one aspect or another of the family business for five decades. He has seen the Jim's name go from Woodlawn Avenue to Tyler Street and then to two locations on North Street. It has been at its current location at 241 North St., since 1974.
The original North Street location is where the Beacon Cinema is now. It was a long and narrow store that founder Irving "Jim" Shulman named House of Shoes.
Abecassis said the current store did a promotional event with Buster Brown products during the 1960s, and that the company sent the store a mini-carousel to help entertain the smaller children.
"I don't even recall how we got the thing into the store," said Abecassis, who said the carousel remains operable in its permanent location at the back of the store.
But if the child-friendly spin-a-round is a staple for generational shoppers, then so is the mantra of Abecassis and the sales staff that has made the store a successful and even iconic North Street landmark.
"It's customer service," Abecassis said. "You have to know your customers, and we do."
Success, though, doesn't come without hard work. Abecassis over the years has become the Charlie Hustle of local shoes. He takes the products on the road and makes presentations to manufacturers, restaurants and the medical profession. The press operators at The Berkshire Eagle, said Abecassis, have worn safety shoes from Jim's.
"We have had contracts with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA) for their drivers and have provided slippers to Berkshire Health Systems," he said.
Abecassis said he will pitch his shoes anywhere and everywhere. That energy and strategy, he said, has allowed him to remain one step ahead of the big-box stores. The satisfaction in his voice is evident and the positive results he has witnessed are almost a half-century long.
He's one of North Street's good guys.
So, who is Jim?
Well, blame it all on Irving Shulman, who was born in Dorchester and graduated from Northeastern University in 1941 with a five-year degree in mechanical engineering. Shulman moved to Pittsfield after World War II because his wife, Helen, had roots here and they both agreed that Pittsfield was a good place to raise a family.
Irving had one concern. He had a job waiting for him at General Electric, but feared a transfer out of the area. It was common during the day for GE to move its top people around.
Shulman instead opted to open a clothing business at the bottom of Woodlawn Avenue, near the GE gate. It was a military surplus store that also supplied working uniforms for men,
It was called Jim's Workingman's Store. OK, again, who's Jim?
Jim was Irving's son and dad thought it was a good idea to name the store after his boy. When the store moved to the corner of Tyler Street and Woodlawn during the 1950s, it became Jim's Department Store.
The next step was to move to its first North Street location in 1967, when it became Jim's House of Shoes. Irving passed away at his retirement home in Florida this past April.
Said Abecassis, who is Irving Shulman's brother-in-law. "The joke is we're all Jim. People used to call Irving Jim because that was the name of the store and they knew he was the owner. They thought he was Jim. And people call me Jim and some of our staff gets called Jim. So, we're all Jim."
And there are plenty of "Jim's" yet to come, Abecassis said.
"I would hope that the store will still be here in 50 years," he said. "I've got no idea what kind of shoes we'll be selling then. But if we're here or not will depend a lot on North Street."
My guess is the store will be there in 50 years. Buster Brown and Tige? I hope so, but I'm just not as sure.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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