A little cool weather has arrived in Houston, but like a Kim Kardashian marriage, who knows how long it will last. There’s always a chance we’ll see temperatures in the 80s as late as Thanksgiving. But I officially have a “Fally Feeling.” Sweaters, glowing fireplaces, long nights, wood smoke in the air. And closed-in shoes. The end of sandal weather. Yes, it’s shoe-fitting time. Time for a new pair of dress shoes to replace the dress sandals my daughter has worn to church all summer.
Fall brings certain memories. Football games – going to my high school stadium and watching the Auburn Tigers play on TV. The bluest skies. The wind blowing. Nuts falling. Trees adorned with glorious golden, orange, and red leaves. I remember, as a child, watching variety specials on TV. At the commercial breaks, Kraft would advertise tasty treats to make with cheese or caramel. My family always made a pilgrimage to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the Fall to see the mountains and the colors in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, though we had pretty vistas of our own in Birmingham, Alabama. I especially remember driving along Dolly Ridge Road on my way from our home in Vestavia Hills to my high school, Briarwood Christian. One curve, right on the top of the ridge, provided a spectacular view and large maple trees boasting vivid yellows and oranges that caught my breath every time I rounded that bend. And another memory blooms along with the pots of chrysanthemums on everyone’s doorsteps - mashed toes.
My grandmother, you see, sold shoes. More than that, she fitted shoes. She worked for close to two decades at the Shoe Corral in Vestavia Hills Mall. The mall was built in the late 1950s when the city was just starting to grow. It was a wondrous place when I was a child in the 1970s. My Mama would take me there many afternoons after school or during the long days of summer. In Alley’s Drug Store, I looked at comic books and drank Yoo-Hoos. At Britling’s Cafeteria, I ate macaroni & cheese and squash croquettes. I bought orange slices and caramel marshmallows at Sears candy counter before adding to my collection of 45’s in the record department. At Christmas time, I eyed the Madam Alexander dolls behind a big glass case in the toy department and selected the one I wanted Santa to bring me. When I couldn’t see the blackboard in the third grade, Mama took me to Daniel’s Opticians for my wire-rimmed glasses and the many adjustments that followed. I bought a Bayberry candle for my Mama’s Christmas present every year at Susan Lane Gifts. A & A Ash jewelry store displayed beautiful, sparkly things in their cases, but Mrs. Ash never seemed to want anyone to come in and look. I helped my grandmother search for blouses at the Blouse House and Alfred Dunner pants at Yielding’s. On Thursdays, my grandmother’s off-day, she and Mama got their hair fixed at ten o’clock in the morning in the beauty shop in the back of Yielding’s. That afternoon, after they picked me up from school, there might be an Arts & Craft show going on in the mall, so we’d be right back up there to buy spiced pinecone wreaths, little oil painting, and maybe a cute, tiny, homemade beanbag friend for me. And at Christmas the mall was packed with holiday shoppers. Parisian’s Department store especially bustled. Almost all my clothes came from there.
But my shoes came from the Shoe Corral. Owned by a local family, the business also had locations in Center Point and Cahaba Heights. The Vestavia store sat in the back of the mall, in the middle, with sliding glass doors opening to the aisle of the mall on either side. An old wooden horse with a real leather saddle and a mop tail stood patiently in the center of the store. Children made a bee-line for it and some would only permit to have their feet measured while sitting on the horse. My grandmother fitted shoes at one time or another on almost everyone I knew. All my school mates shopped there. I always had the first pick of the shoes that came in, and soon after I appeared at school in my new Ra-Ra saddle shoes, or Yo-Yos that had holes through the bouncy heels, or Candie’s that looked cute but cut into my feet, or Jelly shoes that made my sweaty feet even sweatier, the other girls in my school would make their trip to the store for the same. During the late 1970s, there was a 1950s fashion throw-back phase, brought on most probably by Happy Days on the television, so we all got penny loafers. During the Urban Cowboy craze, I got my Dingo cowgirl boots, which I still have and wear proudly during Houston Rodeo season. During the summer there were thong sandals that produced a permanent, spraddled gap between my big toes and their neighbor toes. And I still have numerous pairs of flip-flops in bright colors, which show their age by the cracked patent leather and worn soles.
But the fitting of the closed-in shoes is my most vivid memory of the Shoe Corral. My grandmother would measure my foot on the metal measuring stick. When I put the shoe on, she’d mash most of the Hell out of my big toe to make sure there was enough growing room. When Mama would question if she was sure, she’d mash the rest of the Hell out. She fitted hundreds of people, especially children, in the same way. Despite the pain, they returned season after season for their shoes. After the sale was made, she put the shoes in a yellow plastic draw string bag that bore the store name and the list of locations and phone numbers.
If I was there at closing time, I got to help my grandmother straighten up. While she returned shoe boxes to the shelves in the backroom, I would clean the two big mirrors in the store, run the vacuum, and straighten the shoes on the display racks. I’d pick up the measuring sticks and put them in a box behind the counter and straighten the fitting stools and chairs. When everything was done, my grandmother would turn out the lights. I’d slide the two, glass doors closed, and she would lock them with her key.
Sometimes I would spend the night with her. We would leave through the rear entrance of the mall and cross Kentucky Avenue to her apartment a block away on Montclair Lane. She never owned a car, because she never learned to drive. She was divorced in the early 1960s and worked in a bakery before the Shoe Corral job. And when she quit working, there were no retirement benefits.
The Shoe Corral is long-since closed; the mall was replaced with a new-fangled lifestyle center; the Montclair Lane apartment torn down to make room for more shops, and my grandmother is with the angels in heaven. I don’t know where the old wooden horse is. But I still have some of the yellow plastic drawstring bags that I put my shoes in when I travel. Yo-yos have long since gone out of fashion, but I suspect there are many people who remember buying shoes at the Shoe Corral and having their toes mashed.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,Leigh Ann Thornton