They called it a going-out-of-business sale yesterday - and sold plenty of shoes - but Dan Bros. Discount Shoes turned into a gathering of devotees who wanted to take home a piece of Baltimore history.
In their size, of course.
Starting at 7:30 a.m., they queued up outside the South Baltimore shop, which for more than six decades has outfitted celebrity athletes, politicians and everyday folks.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, bought three pairs yesterday. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke bought a pair, too. State Sen. George W. Della Jr., regular Dan's customer and Federal Hill resident, also stopped by for the sale.
"They've been here all my life," said Della, a South Baltimore Democrat whose office is a few blocks from the store. "This is a step backward for the neighborhood. Sometimes change is not good, not good at all."
Schmoke dropped in to buy a pair of walking shoes for a trip overseas. He also wanted to say goodbye to a neighborhood fixture where he has shopped for 10 years.
"It's a Baltimore landmark, a gathering place," Schmoke said. "You could take the pulse of the community here."
The store, at 1032 S. Charles St., will shut its doors for good when the last sole of the 12,000-pair inventory disappears. That could be the end of the year, said co-owner Keith Heaps.
Lines at Dan's register yesterday were a dozen people deep for most of the day, and the ring of the phones was steady.
People browsed through the thousands of colorful cowboy boots, shiny oxfords, traditional loafers, wingtips, sneakers and sandals. Prices range from $1,700 for a pair of Lucchese Western boots to $19.95 for slippers.
Many at the sale shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of no more Dan's.
Some patrons, like former City Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, stood near the door, chatting for hours. DiBlasi said he didn't know where he'd shop for shoes, because he can't remember buying shoes anywhere else.
"Almost every pair of shoes I've owned I bought here," he said.
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has been known to stop by when he needs shoes. So has boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. And former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali has been in, too.
"I saw Redd Foxx there once," said elevator installer Tony Smith as he lugged four boxes of shoes up Charles Street at 8:30 a.m.
Owners Keith and Linda Heaps decided to close so they can dedicate more time to other business ventures. And, they say, the store hasn't been the same without founder Dan Rufo, who died in April.
The other original Dan who started the store, Dan DiTonno, died in 1979.
"I wish you had met my dad. If you had, you'd know why so many people are here," said Linda Heaps, Rufo's daughter, who worked the register with a sad smile and an occasionally tearful eye. "He was never too busy to talk to everybody."
He was the kind of guy who wanted customers to have shoes, sometimes even if they couldn't pay him, Keith Heaps said.
Over the years, workers from fish stalls at the nearby Cross Street Market would come in with feet soaking wet from the ice, and Rufo would give them rubber boots. They would come back and pay him $10 at a time on payday, or whenever they had the cash.
Heaps said they are selling the three-story building to the highest bidder. They are talking to three possible buyers: One would turn the building into a clothing and shoe store; another would make it a doctor's office; and the third would turn it into condominiums.
The closing of Dan's is one more step in the slow conversion of the neighborhood from old Baltimore to new. Over the past 25 years, aging folks have left the area, and young professionals have moved in, renovated homes and helped bars and restaurants thrive.
Another sign of the changing neighborhood is nearby Southway Bowling, which has been operating for 61 years and will soon become loft apartments. Another is recently closed Singer's Hardware, which had served the community since 1920.
Royal Pollokoff, also known as Royal Parker, former television commercial actor and fill-in host of "Bowling for Dollars" and other bowling television shows, came by Dan's for the sale. His son used to own Southway Bowling.
"It was more than buying shoes here, it was like a hangout," he said. "Sometimes you hate to see things change. You want to hold on to your mother's apron strings."
Nobody at the store knows that better than Harry Kalinsky, who for 30 years held court as salesman, comedian and would-be therapist for thousands of Dan's regulars. He gained some fame as an extra in John Waters movies and doing Lotto commercials.
Usually jovial, Kalinsky was a bit somber yesterday as he knelt over a pair of stockinged feet, easing them into shoes and forcing a smile.
The soul of the store, he said, was much more than the soles in the store. "It's the people. You know?" he said, raising a trembling finger to wipe his eye.