One of JP's oldest retail businesses, , fits into a tiny but absolutely packed space of roughly 400 sq. ft.
A rack of clothing and accessories stands in the center. Shoes line the perimeter of the 669 Centre St. institution. Well-used benches skirt the shelving and designer specialties hang by wooden clothespins on open shoe boxes. Customers stream in and out constantly. There is nothing elegant about George's except the shoes themselves and the simplicity of it all. With no frills, an ear constantly to the ground, and a contact list in the industry over 50 years deep, Benton "Ben" Abrams turns up one lot of designer shoes after another.
Shoes can be an endless obsession. It is not uncommon for a woman to buy a specific pair of shoes to go with a single article of clothing, maybe to be worn only once. Weddings, anniversaries, and special events are all potential reasons to buy a new pair of shoes. If the shoe works with other outfits, all the better, but for many women that doesn't matter. Shoes have traveled far from being the creations of necessity that were once nearly singular prize possessions in small wardrobes to being accessories that mark a woman's style sense and fashion status.
Abrams, who is surrounded by women, knows all about women's shoes, if not about women themselves. His wife, Dorothy "Dotty" Abrams can throw Ben a quick glance that is clearly shorthand for paragraphs of instruction. A long married couple, they are for all to see not cast from the same die. But also plain is their dedication to the shop and to each other. During the course of the interview Dotty was with one customer after another, at least a half dozen in about 30 minutes while also following every word Abrams spoke. And she was not on the floor alone. Patricia Madore, a relative newcomer who commutes from Methuen has been working alongside the Abrams since 1979. She fits in like one of the family.
The affable Ben, who grew up in JP and graduated from (back before it was in JP), plans to attend his 60th high school reunion this year. He has been at George's since 1957 when he joined his father in the then-new JP store.
The eponymous George Abrams came to the U.S. from Romania when he was just seven years old.
"When he met my mother in 1911, he was the foreman in a shoe factory...He opened his first store in 1922. He had many stores including in the South End, Inman Square, Warren St., Dudley St., Jackson Square at one time... Shoe supply was a different business then." said Ben.
There were still shoemakers in Jamaica Plain and all around Boston. Abrams said that his father had a combination storefront factory that sold and made some shoes up until the Depression. Today there are very few shoemakers left in the US.
When Abrams took over in 1962 the company added a large store in Union Square in Somerville to the JP branch and then in 1992 his daughter Susan Baroff opened the Benton Shoe Company store, a retail shop in Manchester, N.H. Ben closed the Somerville store in 1998 when he began what he calls semi-retirement, working neither every hour nor every day. Now, NH and JP are the only two locations and Baroff is increasingly responsible for all the decisions.
Baroff handles the clothing and accessory purchases and some of the shoe buys for both stores, but she uses the NH store as her base. Ben does most of the shoe buying for both stores from the Centre Street location. Dotty and their longtime clerks Madore and Leslie Riveria handle all of the trade in JP including a brisk clothing and accessories business. In all, the company employs 6-8 people between the two stores.
That is not to say that the business is simple, only that there is no pretension and as few costs borne by a pair of shoes as possible. According to Donna Wahlberg of Milton, a long time customer of George's, they're the real deal serving up top notch designer shoes at low prices. She says that it's hit or miss, but the hitting is sometimes so good she has been known to pick up multiple pairs in a single visit. Another customer pantomimed from behind Ben's head pointing straight down at him while she mouthed, "Good people."
Abrams said that the recent recession was among the worst periods of business since he started. He said that in 2008 about 80 percent of his suppliers went out of business almost overnight. Victims of the credit crisis, they were unable to borrow the money to buy the shoe lots that had become George's chief source of supply. When the suppliers exhausted their inventory they had to close their doors. Abrams said that unlike most of their supply sources, George's was able to pull through. He added that the industry has largely recovered since. He and Dotty agreed that last year they sold at least thousands of pairs of shoes.
Although the work and the decision making has gone increasingly to Baroff, neither Ben nor Dotty has plans to retire and under daughter Susan's control, George's Shoes looks set to survive well into the 21st century, "All Sales Final."