The front window of Herb's Bargain Center on Light Street beckons with its cheap Young Elvis prints and its colorful Las Vegas Elvis throw rugs, but what I'm after this particular day is a new pair of shoes. So I walk, in my sad Stanley Blackers, past all the other consumer temptations of the Cross Street Market area. I walk past the two workers from Moppin' Momma's cleaning service as they sit in their air-conditioned van eating gorgeously gooey meatball-and-provolone subs (I am tempted to knock on the windshield and ask where they got them). I walk past the damaged-freight store with the sidewalk sale of plastic storage containers, through the market, past the flower stalls and the meat stalls and the seafood stalls and the sushi bar with the beautiful women on lunch break. I resist all temptation and arrive at Dan Brothers Discount Shoe Store on South Charles Street. It's where I want to be.
This place provides shoes not only to pedestrians like me but to the stars of the National League and the American League, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, the World Boxing Federation, the U.S. Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. You could look it up because the place is loaded with photographs of its famous clientele.
The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume gets his shoes there. So does his successor in Congress, Elijah E. Cummings. Jack Luskin, once the cheapest guy in town, buys from Dan Brothers. Ditto Chuck Thompson. Baseball great Rod Carew, too. Armando Benitez bought some for himself - and three pairs for his brother. Sugar Ray Leonard has Done The Dan. Muhammad Ali came in a few years ago with an entourage. The entourage bought shoes.
"I don't need shoes," Ali told Harry Kalinsky, the smiling man with the black-framed eyeglasses who pops up with a Polaroid to take pictures of his famous customers. "While the others in his group were getting fitted, Ali stands there and he makes a fist. He says to me, 'You wanna see a little magic?' And he goes like this with his hand."
Kalinsky makes a circular motion with his right palm over his clenched left hand.
"And Ali reaches into his fist and pulls out a red handkerchief. I says, 'Muhammad, how did you do that?' And he put his fingers to his lips and says, 'I can't tell you. It's magic.'"
Kalinsky and Keith Heaps, son-in-law of the owner and founder of Dan Brothers, Dan Rufo, relish telling these stories, but they don't go out of their way to brag. Not from what I see.
While Kalinsky sized me up for new shoes the other day, one-time Dunbar High and University of Maryland basketball star Ernie Graham walked in, and no one made a fuss. Heaps just quietly pointed him out to me. Graham handed Heaps a pair of blue suede shoes - I am not making this up - for some heel and toe work, then bought two more pairs.
Basketball players know about Dan Brothers, have for years. The old Baltimore Bullets - Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld - used to come in all the time and some of the NBA's millionaires still get their kicks at 1032 S. Charles St.
That's partly due these days to former Dunbar star Muggsy Bogues, who worked in the store between his senior year of high school and his freshman year at Wake Forest. Once in the NBA, Bogues talked up Dan Brothers. A few years ago, one of his teammates from the Charlotte Hornets, Larry Johnson (now of the New York Knicks), placed an $11,000 order and paid for it by phone with his American Express card.
"We never met him," says Heaps. "He ordered by phone and I even now, when we see something good, something he might like, we send it his way."
Johnson and Bogues, lately of the Golden State Warriors, have spread the word to other NBA teams. The favored shoe among players is a lizard skin model custom-made for Dan Brothers by the Italian designer Mauri. They can be made as loafers or as laced shoes, with wingtips or without, in a startling array of colors.
Some customers, in and out of the NBA, get particular about the design and the color, but Mauri can usually deliver a customized job within 45 days. The shoes sell for up to $700 a pair.
The Mauris are special. They get their own display away from the Brutinis and the Morandis, the Blackers, the Johnston and Murphys. There's plenty in the store for the average person's wallet. And the salesmen are a helpful bunch. Kalinsky looks like a character actor for a Barry Levinson film, and for good reason - he's been in one ("Avalon").
Mike Coates is the salesman who handles the big guys with the big appetites for expensive shoes. Jimmy Pastore works the floor as well. Turk Wells fixes shoes. Pete Bell shines them.
The Dan in Dan Brothers is Rufo, 81. He started on Charles Street with a shoe repair shop in 1938. The other Dan was Rufo's half-brother, the late Danny DiTonno.