OPINION: Last chance for footwear - and abuse - at Bennie’s Shoes

Mark Shemaria, the third generation proprietor of Bennie's Shoes, has announced the store is closing after more than 110 years.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Mark Shemaria, the third generation proprietor of Bennie's Shoes, has announced the store is closing after more than 110 years.

By Wednesday morning, word was out that Bennie’s Shoe’s, Atlanta’s long-running, retailing emporium, was shutting down.

Customers streamed into the Piedmont Road store to say goodbye, snag a deal on footwear and perhaps engage in verbal give-and-take with Mark Shemaria, the third-generation proprietor.

Shemaria, known to be demonstrative and profane, was already in third gear by 9:30 a.m.

He inspected a customer’s shoe and then, with a shrug and a hint of disdain, ruled it unrepairable. “These are driving shoes; they’re not meant to be worn on Cee-ment,” he said, asking if the man at least wanted a shine.

No, the man said, walking out.

“I can’t sell him a freaking shine,” Shemaria said. “It’s over.”

Early in the week, Shemaria announced Bennie’s Shoes was done at month’s end. The strip mall’s management company wants higher rent, he said, hiking it from the reduction he received during COVID.

Mark Shemaria, president of Bennie's Shoes, makes a sale as the longtime business gets set to close.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

But it’s not just the rent, it’s the business as a whole. People now buy from Amazon; shoe manufacturers sell online, bypassing the bricks and mortar retailers; and men just don’t dress up like they once did.

Casual Fridays have spread to the entire workweek.

“Everyone used to wear real shoes,” Shemaria told me. “The whole world’s changed, and I can’t do anything about it.”

For the interview, I donned my dressy black Rockports instead of my usual gym shoes. I didn’t want him to think I was one of the people putting him out of business.

To my surprise, he was wearing tennis shoes.

Bennie’s was founded by his grandfather — Bennie, of course — in 1912, who had immigrated earlier to Atlanta from the Isle of Rhodes. A cobbler by trade, the young Jewish immigrant opened up near Broad and Marietta streets. This was just a few blocks from the National Pencil Company, the factory that Leo Frank managed.

The elder Shemaria’s business grew and, in 1970, moved to a shopping mall on Piedmont Road selling discounted shoes. Bennie’s sons Jack (who was Mark Shemaria’s dad), Hymie and Louie ran the business. It moved to its current location about 20 years ago.

Bennie Shemaria, a young immigrant, started his shoe cobbling business around 1912. Shown here at his store on Broad Street in 1938.

Credit: Courtesy of Mark Shemaria

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Credit: Courtesy of Mark Shemaria

It is certainly among the oldest continually operating businesses in Atlanta.

At one time, Shemaria says, it was metro Atlanta’s largest purveyor of shoes, with four stores. The 2008 recession caused the business to retrench to its one location on Piedmont.

Bennie’s once had a constant presence on radio. In 2000, it landed on the cover of Atlanta magazine’s “Best Of” issue with a photo of beloved radio cheapskate Clark Howard excitedly holding up a bargain-priced wingtip.

The store sports a massive reprint of that magazine cover.

“Clark and I are both OJs,” Shemaria announces to anyone within earshot, “Original Jews of Atlanta.”

I contacted Howard, who told me, “Bennie’s had great prices, better quality than I usually would buy and a small-town touch in the middle of a big city. Shopping that’s personal is usually expensive. Bennie’s was like an informal boutique where customers felt welcomed and appreciated.”

But, he said, “I’m guilty as anyone of shopping at the big boxes and dot.coms.”

And, as a sign of the times, he added “I own two pairs of dress shoes and one pair has holes in the soles.”

Veteran shoe cobbler Terry Cousin takes the sole off a pair of shoes. Mark Shemaria, president of Bennie's Shoes, said repairs have helped keep the business afloat.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Shemaria said his shoe-repair business has helped him survive as sales of dress shoes have plummeted.

Customer Andy Reynolds, drawn in by the impending closure, said, “This is an Atlanta icon. It’s hard to believe. It’s like the Varsity is closing.”

At the counter, Shemaria threw in a free can of waterproofing spray to a purchase, while urging another customer to, “Go back there and buy something. And don’t bother looking at the prices.”

Everything’s negotiable. More than 2,000 pairs of shoes must go out the door by Sept. 30.

Ron Robinson, who has moved to Tennessee and was in town, came to reminisce. He told Shemaria: “I remember going to your brother’s bachelor party at Tattletales,” referring to a nearby strip club.

Shemaria guffawed. “That’s where my father got up on a table!” he added.

Bob James, a retired Georgia Tech administrator and college basketball referee, shook his head laughing. “He’s nutty as a fruitcake,” the decades-long customer said about Shemaria.

James said college referees for years have come to Bennie’s as a must-stop on their tour.

“They’d say, ‘How can you blow a call like that?’ " he said. “I’d say, ‘How can you give us the wrong-size shoes?’ "

On this day, James was being fitted for a pair of crocodile loafers. “It’s an $800 shoe, I’ll give it to you for $200,” said store manager Matthew Green, who’s worked there for 40 years.

Longtime customer Bob James talks to Bennie's Shoes store manager about a pair of crocodile shoes.

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Shemaria walks by coaxing an elderly customer into a buying mood.

“You gonna die soon? You don’t need any more shoes?” Shemaria says, giving his best irascible sale pitch.

Soon, the old fellow is examining a future purchase.

Shemaria pauses and momentarily gets sentimental.

“It’s bittersweet. You have a company all your life, a family company. You don’t want to go down as the one who killed it.”

He thought about his 50 years with the business and gramps, the immigrant cobbler, making a go of it in a strange new land.

“But it’s been a good run.”