A few final steps remain before longtime Pittsfield shoe store closes
PITTSFIELD — Marc Abecassis has been selling shoes on North Street to the same customers for so long that he refers to them by their shoe sizes.
"I don't know names," Abecassis said. "If I see somebody, I'll say, 'There's 10 double A or 9 1/2 narrow.'"
It's a quirky detail that could only be associated with a longtime business like Jim's House of Shoes, which has been located on North Street for more than half a century and has roots in Pittsfield dating to 1946.
But, this tradition soon will be coming to an end. Abecassis, the store owner who has been involved with Jim's since it moved to North Street, has decided to retire and plans on closing the business for good within the next 60 to 90 days, depending on how quickly he sells the store's remaining inventory.
"I just turned 70," said Abecassis, whose birthday was in June. "When I was 65, I had thought about it. I kept thinking, maybe another year, maybe another year. But, I'm a grandfather. I want to spend time with my grandkids. I love to dance and play golf and travel.
"I love to sell shoes, too. But, how much longer am I going to be able to do it? Ten more years and I'll be 80."
The building that houses Jim's is owned by the families of the store's founders, the late Irving Shulman and Murray Levine, who married sisters. Abecassis, who married Levine's daughter, Joyce, said the family plans to sell the building after Jim's closes.
"I have to clear up my inventory before I concentrate on the real estate," Abecassis said. "One thing at a time. I'm not in a rush. I wish I could stay here forever, but everything comes to an end. It was a tough decision."
There is a lot of city history tied up in Jim's House of Shoes.
Shulman and Levine started the business — it originally was known as Jim's Workingman's Store — on Woodlawn Avenue, across from the General Electric Co. complex's main gate, in August 1946. The store was named after Shulman's son, Jim, an Eagle columnist who lives in Ohio and was the driving force behind the Berkshire Carousel project.
The business survived a devastating fire on Christmas Eve in 1957 that wiped out the store's then-location on Tyler Street. Shulman and Levine rebuilt Jim's in another Tyler Street location that later became the IUE-CWA Local 55's union hall before moving it in 1967 to North Street, where the store was renamed Jim's House of Shoes.
Although Jim's once operated a second store, in the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough, it has been located in its current location at 239 North St. since 1976, the year before Abecassis joined the business. (Jim's ran a separate store on North Street that sold children's shoes before combining both stores at the current North Street location in October 1977.)
The North Street commercial corridor has experienced several highs and lows over the past 52 years — Abecassis once described those ups and downs as "meshuggenah," a Yiddish word for "crazy," in an interview with The Eagle. But Jim's has survived.
North Street's commercial struggles began in the mid-1980s when GE, the city's largest employer, started to downsize, but Jim's adapted when Abecassis began selling safety shoes to some of the Berkshires' other large employers.
"I would say that's 30 to 40 percent of our business," Abecassis told The Eagle in 2013.
Because of its longevity, Jim's has sold shoes to generations of Berkshire County customers.
"We've got people who come by who have been regulars since 1946," Abecassis said. "They buy one particular shoe. It's going to be a void around here without Jim's House of Shoes."
That void will work both ways. Abecassis said he will miss his customers as much as they miss him.
"My customers are my friends; they're like my family," he said.
One of his employees, Mary Lunsford, has been with the business for 44 years, according to Abecassis.
"Mary's semiretired," he said. "She's going to quit with me."
Some customers have reacted to Jim's closing like a death in the family.
"It's like I'm going to bury somebody," Abecassis said. "What are you going to do ... can you last another couple of years? But, so many people have come by to say good luck in your retirement. They've become my friends."
Born in Morocco, Abecassis moved to Israel, where he first met his future wife while she was visiting the country from Pittsfield while on a high school trip. He came to the United States from Spain in 1972, then went to Berkshire Community College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he earned a bachelor's degree in hotel management.
He said he turned down a job with a national hotel chain to join the family business five years later.
"I wanted to be in one place and grow," he said.
Abecassis, who is fluent in five languages, said he plans to teach English to immigrants at the Berkshire Immigration Center in Pittsfield after he retires.
"I want to finish this first, so I'm talking in the next six to 12 months," he said. "The Immigrant Center already approached me."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6224.
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