Droplets rained down on my front stoop. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear for the mile trek to the Taft Museum Footwear in Step with Labor Activism, Suffrage, and the Sexual Revolution exhibit.
What shoes to wear: the prevailing question for women, for bad weather and for someone raised in the family business of Januzzi’s Shoes.
Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, we couldn’t turn the transistor radio dial to WEOL without hearing the jingle All over the street / to happy feet / Get your shoesies at Januzzi’s. The family motto, if one existed. We heard those words crackling with our morning Rice Krispies and while walking the grainy school floors with a classmate mimicking, badly, the peppy tone of the radio ad.
The jingle has haunted me all across Ohio, as has the importance of my grandmother in establishing the store.
Januzzi’s Shoes was started in 1926 as a repair shop in the home of my grandparents, Enrico and Stella, on 506 W. 28th Street. They named it Enrico’s Electrical Shoe Repair Shop. I write that now with fury in my fingers after learning from the museum exhibit that Beth Levine, the First Lady of Shoe Design, named her company Herbert Devine after her husband because it “sounded better” than Beth Levine. Had Stella suffered a similar fate?
Throughout the retrospective, placards that explained how women’s roles in the shoe industry evolved over time drew me in more so than the actual shoes themselves, glittery and glamorous though they were.
No one had imparted to Beth Devine to the importance of maintaining ownership of one’s work. The narrative around my grandmother Stella read like plagiarism on the same topic. According to my father, his mother did plenty of the work for the shoe repair shop while Enrico also worked at National Tube. She had been an accomplished seamstress, according to one of her grandnieces. In reading the museum’s presentation about mass production and the paltry wages of women who sewed the piecework at home to be attached to the soles later at the factory, I saw so much of her and ached to know more of what she had accomplished.
The family business’ first name could have easily been Stella’s Shoes, which had a poetic sensibility to it. Instead, they went from the long descriptor to an unofficial Enrico and Sons, and finally Januzzi’s Shoes. The lore always focused on Enrico. But rarely did the name reference the work Stella put in before her death in 1974 when I was 8.
Throughout my early and late teens, I worked in inventory, filing customer cards, completing credit card transactions in triplicate and counting back change. I learned about layaways — and life. Sometimes, buying shoes came before milk. Sometimes, hiring women still meant the next store manager was the cousin, a first-born male.
In 1984, the brothers dissolved the original corporation and the work ethic, creativity, and love behind Januzzi’s Shoes was left to rot in a shop that became a vacant home for rats.
Back in the years when we were flush in shoes, friends who visited the pristine home my mother kept on Lincoln Street were asked (required) to remove their shoes. Entering through the back garage door, shoes were lined up — track cleats special-ordered in my size, sparkly heels, Converse shoes dyed to match softball team colors, or Life Stride saddle shoes for cheerleading that didn’t match the rest of the squad because they bought theirs elsewhere — like cars at the Indy 500.
We told the world who were with our shoes. We told the world who we weren’t.
Peering now through the plexiglass at the Stuart Weitzman Historic Collection, I longed for the smell of cobbler’s glue that clogged the air near the sewing machine where Grandpa repaired shoes. To take in the dusty scent of leather, of creamy silks and satins, and of burnt rubber. To witness in early morning, the sight of particles floating in the air from opening and closing shoeboxes and tissue paper, like moths drawn to light. Or Drug Mart perfumes wafting off ladies who squeezed their toes into something only an Italian designer could fashion but an American woman couldn’t wear. I shivered at the memory of my grandfather’s gruff voice, espousing the store’s success, but longed to hear Stella speak for herself.
Shoes stood tall in light of our family’s triumphs, and their heels crumpled in our collapse. My dad drove my sister and I to work at one of the spin-off stores where we constantly lamented the selections made by management. When women ran this business, we always said, without reflecting on the fact that long ago, my grandmother already had.
Greed and family politics prevented us from proving ourselves. Beth Levine should have hung her name on the door. Stella too.
Walking home after viewing the collection, my purple Nike trail runners, which I had decided to wear instead of suede boots, squished as I crossed puddled sidewalks.
When the pandemic is over, I want to dress up again, wear my sleek, rusted red slides, the color of a hot Amalfi sun, with creme sequins attached to the toe strap and a shimmering satin lining the sole.
I’ll wear heels to appear taller than actual size. And run through the streets telling mere strangers, “Love the shoes!” I’ll buy myself a pair of fancy boudoir slippers with ribbons and sing an altered rendition of the radio jingle, just for Stella’s sake, to let her know the revolution is on.
* For more information, visit https://www.taftmuseum.org/exhibitions/walkthisway. Ticketed only.