Torched shoe shop yields its soggy, charred salvage

November 14, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Tahlala Mason was going to run into the repair shop quickly, just long enough to pick up some shoes and a couple pairs of boots, while her boyfriend waited outside in the car.

She came back empty handed.

"Where's the shoes?" her boyfriend asks.

Ms. Mason tells him: "You won't believe this."

Judy Elbaum can't believe it.

Her 80-year-old family business, Century Shoe Repair on Park Avenue, was destroyed this week in an arson fire. Investigators said the blaze was deliberately set with a chemical thinner, the kind used to dilute cobbler's glue. They have no suspects.

In an unrelated crime a day after the fire, a desperate soul broke into the stinking blackness of the boarded-up, burned-out building and stole a big box full of shoes, handbags, and boot polish.

Since the fire Tuesday night, people like Tahlala Mason have been showing up every day, walking slowly along the 200 block of Park Ave., claim tickets in hand, eyes widening and mouths falling open as they glimpse the charred brick carcass that was Century Shoe Repair.

"This is not happening," says Bedell Terry, nearing the store. "I brought in three pairs of expensive shoes on Monday, about $600 worth. One pair was brand new."

Mrs. Elbaum, who has been conducting business on the sidewalk this past week, says: "We might be able to find them."

Mr. Terry looks on with hope and skepticism as she hands his tickets to Thomas Phillips, who disappears into the dark rubble with a flashlight.

Mr. Phillips, 43, has been hanging around the Century shop since he was a kid.

His mother, Cathy Chase, is one of a half-dozen people employed in the four-story shop, a downtown landmark founded where workers used to reglaze reptile shoes, fix zippers, repair luggage, rebuild shoes from the soles up, dye old shoes or cover them with fabric, make pointed toes round or round toes into points, stretch shoes wider and longer or make them more narrow, and almost anything else that can be done with leather.

Judy Elbaum's grandfather, Sam Myerberg, started the business after the turn of the century with his brother Izzy. Mrs. Elbaum has kept the business going with her mother, Beatrice Nathanson, and their help.

Over the years, downtown workers and people who once lived in the city but moved away -- together with customers from around the country who mail in shoes to be fixed -- have come to depend on Century for skills rare today.

Up until a few months ago, the shop also employed Baltimore's oldest shoe shine, 92-year-old Will Gross, now retired. His old stand is in ashes.

After 10 minutes rummaging around in the store, Thomas Phillips emerges to call Judy Elbaum over, handing her an armful of brown paper bags. To Bedell Terry she says: "I have good news and bad news."

The good: His shoes were found, unburned.

The bad: They are soggy and unrepaired.

To Tahlala Mason she gives a couple pairs of boots, not yet fixed, a repaired handbag and her boyfriend's shoes, newly mended. For this work, Ms. Mason and other customers are charged nothing.

"Cool," says Ms. Mason, 20.

With an estimated $100,000 in damage to the building and its contents -- including lost items beyond value like the old, hand-carved wooden statue of a shoemaker in the front window -- the Elbaums have more to think about than charging for soggy shoes that reek of smoke.

Their antique brass cash register, which couldn't ring up a sale over $9.99, burned too.

Spared were a collection of cookbooks Mrs. Elbaum's father, the late Sol Nathanson, kept at the store, an antique manual typewriter, cans of good polish and hundreds of shoes.

"Miss Judy's really got it together," said Mr. Phillips. "She's holding her own, trying to please her customers. Even though it was her family's business, it was ours too, we spent our lives here. There's a lot of broken feelings here now."

Asked if she will rebuild and start anew, Judy Elbaum says she doesn't have an answer yet.

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