Towson Bootery leaving York Road 'Fixture' is moving to Shops at Kenilworth

August 05, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The "mayor" of Towson is leaving town.

After almost a half-century, Dick Rudolph -- who was given the unofficial title by friend William Donald Schaefer years ago -- is moving his shoe store, Towson Bootery, to a nearby mall.

The relocation marks a poignant passage for Rudolph, 79, who started the York Road shop on a shoestring budget in 1948. "It's going to break my heart," he said. "It's like losing a home."

But times have changed on Main Street, U.S.A. Old-fashioned retail is giving way to restaurants and specialty shops. And Towson's business district is no exception.

"I'm sorry to see the little shoe store leaving. It's been a fixture on [York Road] for so long," says Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley. "But, as I've said before, Towson is becoming an entertainment center. That is how Main Streets are revitalizing themselves."

Towson also will be getting a make-over that includes brick sidewalks and decorative lighting, a traffic roundabout and the proposed redevelopment of the former Hutzler's department store into warehouse-style retailers.

"I hope with the decoration of Towson and the revitalization, it will help the business owners of Towson," Rudolph says.

Scarce parking

For him, though, the improvements come too late. He cites the difficulty of luring customers who can't find on-street parking and the mammoth Towson Commons as reasons for the move.

"It took parking away from us," he says of the multistory office-movie theater-restaurant complex that fills an entire block. Lamenting the changes in Towson, he adds, "It used to be the rock of Gibraltar here. I thought we'd be here forever."

Rudolph, who still works part time at the store, and son, Alex, 47, will move the family business by early next month to the Shops at Kenilworth.

"I'm excited," says Jean Hammond, the Bootery's only other full-time employee, who has worked there 34 years. "I think it will bring loads of customers."

Marianne Schmidt, 29, of Towson, who has shopped at the store since she was a teen-ager, agrees. "I think we'll be more frequent visitors," the mother of five says. "There won't be as much chaos as going into Towson."

Last Tuesday, Schmidt brought her bevy of children, ages 11 months to 7, into the small store. Dick Rudolph patiently fitted the baby with his first pair of shoes while the other children climbed on chairs or hid behind the counter.

"Mr. Dick," as they call him, kept the family entertained with toys and lots of lollipops.

"I'm head of the prize department," he says good-naturedly.

Rudolph is not sure how much time he'll spend at the new store. "It's Alex's turn now," he says with a sigh. "I've had my day."

Alex Rudolph already is a fixture at the Bootery.

High ratings from customers

Since he was 14 and took streetcars to Towson to work on weekends, he has been under his father's tutelage, learning the business. He's also been responsible for its daily operation since 1980, when his father went into semiretirement.

"My father taught me a lot about this business -- from janitorial, running stock, going to shoe fairs," he says. "My biggest fear was waiting on customers."

But customers give him high ratings. "Dick's more casual," Schmidt says, explaining the difference between father and son. "Alex is more serious. But he makes sure the shoes fit and everybody walks out the door with a smile."

Dick Rudolph, with his gregarious nature and community involvement, is a hard act to follow.

Politically active, he's hobnobbed with some of the top officials in the state and nation. There's a prominent photo of him with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, among others, in the store.

Rudolph also founded such organizations as Save-A-Heart Foundation and Citizens Outreach for Baltimore County, a food program started in the back of his store. Hammond says Rudolph told her, "Don't ever let a poor family walk out of here without shoes."

No drastic changes

At the new location, Alex Rudolph doesn't plan drastic changes. The historical display of shoes from the 1800s to the 1970s, including the inches-high yellow-flowered platform sandals, will move there.

So will the bear.

The slightly dingy, 6-foot polar bear, acquired in the 1960s from a furrier, always has been a conversation piece at the store. The Rudolphs remember the day when they moved the animal from the store's original location across the street -- "It stopped traffic," they laugh.

But the most important item they'll take with them is the decades-old NCR cash register. "Jean won't let me get a new one," Dick Rudolph says.

Hammond explains: "You've got to use your head. You've got to think with that one. It's good luck."

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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