It’s an end of an era in East Boston as Al’s Shoe Store in Central Square, a neighborhood institution since the 1920s, announced it is closing after 90 years in business.
We live in a world where retail is largely an impersonal experience for shoppers. Discount chains and shopping malls have moved us away from the once friendly environment of locally owned mom and pop clothing and shoe operations where the business owners were friends, knew their customers and greeted new clients with a smile and unparalleled service.
Today we roam the isles of retail stores on our own amid an endless supply of items with employees that know little or nothing about the stock they are promoting.
However, Al’s Shoe store, owned by Henry Wein, was an oasis from the aloof world of modern retail here in Eastie.
Tucked just outside of Central Square at 225 Border Street, Al’s Shoe Store has survived the onslaught of retail chains that have moved into the neighborhood and threatened its very existence.
Owned by the same family since 1924, Wein has been selling shoes to generations of East Bostonians since 1946.
And while on any given day customers can be found rummaging around his supply of rock bottom priced inventory, the golden age of independent shoe stores is all but over.
“A lot has changed in the neighborhood and the way people shop,” said the 88-year-old Wein back in 2012. “Most customers don’t want to be bothered. I try to talk to the people that come in and get to know them but it’s different time now.”
There was a time when most, if not all, Eastie residents owned a pair of shoes from Al’s. Wein knew every customer by name, knew their size automatically and fit their children and their children’s children for their first pair of shoes.
There was a time when parents would come and tell their kids ‘whatever Henry says your getting is what your are getting’.
Behind the counter Wein use to keep a book of memories. The photo album contained dozens of pages filled with yearbook pictures and the family photos of several generations of customers from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Flipping through the book there are photos of parties and special events Wein use to hold at his store that would draw large crowds on the weekends.
Al’s hasn’t been totally forgotten. While business isn’t what it use to be there was still a loyal group of customers that would come in to buy shoes for their grandkids for Easter or Communion or other special occasions.
Al’s Shoes was a piece of Eastie history and reminiscent of a time when customer service meant everything in the world of retail.