FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, a tribute to Arnold Churgin
February 7, 2017
He deserves an ode, perhaps a brilliant sonnet …
Women loved him.
Competitors hated him.
OK, they didn’t hate him – they masked their envy of someone who built an iconic Canadian retail masterpiece, not at Bloor and Bay or on Robson or St. Catherine Streets, but on 8th Avenue – downtown Calgary.
His first of two stores on Calgary’s 8th Avenue opened in 1964. He didn’t advertise. He didn’t need to.
I don’t know how to eulogize that phenomenon, that brand, the store – so it can only be a eulogy for the man who gave his name to stores and his brilliance to make his customers swoon with stunning fashion, magnificent leathers and comfort. That man, Arnold Churgin.
I first encountered Arnold Churgin’s name at my high school. My family moved to Calgary in 1968 – and it wasn’t long till I observed those trademark ‘green and navy striped drawstring bags’ that all the coolest girls were using to carry things, not usually their shoes. They carried those bags like a badge of honour – evidence they had (or maybe their mothers did) shoes from THAT store. Evidence their parents could afford them and just as easily, their shoes proved they’d been to an unusual place …
My fondness for fine footwear and the women who wore them would soon be satisfied by my work life, or at least the first chapters; that fall, 1968, I got a part-time job selling shoes – and so began my 20-year career in the footwear industry in sales, management and as a buyer. I quickly learned there was an industry ‘gold standard’ of how to procure the most outstanding collection of women’s shoes in Canada every season – Arnold Churgin Shoes, quickly becoming an institution patronized by loyal adoring customers and envied by every shoe merchant in the country.
My encounters with him were near misses – never actually met him or talked with him; but I have three stories that illustrate why I remain completely amazed by him and his memory.
His death, enroute to a shoe show in August 1987, sent shock-waves through the footwear industry. I was presenting some new lines at that show for U.S. importers of Italian and Spanish women's shoes. Those buying shows brought together manufacturers, importers, buyers, retailers – semi-annually booking orders for two-seasons hence. Within an hour of the news, word had spread and a sense of mourning, smiling, admiring and longing for his command of craft overtook us. He was immediately missed, all of us knowing the likes of Arnold might never be seen again.
His legacy, his name on the door and the shoes lived on, his family carried on the business and expanded it. Oh my, such enormous shoes to fill! As a watcher (and father/husband/boyfriend to numerous women of shoe-buying-age) over the years I spent considerable time and money observing that, notwithstanding a strong presentation … that magic of Arnold was, sadly, gone.
What do I mean?
His talent was as a buyer. He combed Europe, not to keep up, but to lead – finding suppliers who would make their shoes his way. His way, often not anything they’d thought of, was nothing short of brilliant. He would detail the shoe differently, changing lasts and heels, and meticulously detail leathers, linings and trims so nobody would recognize it. He would buy it in a dozen colours and add pastel linings that boldly sported his logo, his brand, his name. I remember one year at a shoe show in Toronto – my sample room was across the hall from the Bandolino showroom – the hottest brand on the North American market at the time – witness to the duration of Arnold’s two-hour closed-door working appointment. Afterword, the line-builder, sales manager and factory reps. gathered in the corridor – exhausted, elated and amazed – saying, “Arnold just tore apart and re-built our entire line for next season. It ‘was’ good, now it is brilliant”.
His uncle. In the 1980’s, in Edmonton, during the mortgage servicing and property management chapter of my life I met a marvelous couple, Marvin Dower and Mozanne Baltzan Dower. I handled their portfolio for a number of years and got to know Marvin quite well. He was retired from the Dower Brothers Wholesale and Sterling Shoes chain he ran for many years. Over lunch one day, and knowing of my history in the shoe business, he shared a story – of running the Sterling store in downtown Calgary, of having a nephew working for him. Despite urging from family members to keep the nephew on staff, Marvin fired him. “He was lazy!” … and we shared a laugh, mine in admiration and his in amazement – because of the greatness that would come from the young man he couldn’t keep.
I spent early days in my shoe career working for Bruce Bourne in Calgary – you might remember the Bourne Shoes chain. Bruce had an ego problem, or maybe it was just an envy problem. He conceived a store called ‘A.L. Thomas’ in Palliser Square – I was installed as its 2nd manager, and worked on the buying. We were good, had great suppliers and great dreams. Still, every week I would walk through Arnold’s store or press my nose against the glass of his shop windows – to realize, no matter how clever we were, we had no hope of matching Arnold’s brilliance or of poaching his fanatically passionate loyal customers. We weren’t alone. Across Canada the premiere retailers could only hope to be mentioned in the same sentence as Arnold. But there were exceptions – Friedman’s from Vancouver and Simard & Voyer from Quebec City did what anyone else would have leapt to if they had the chance. They trusted their budget to Arnold’s keen eye as they formed a buying group – so Arnold could give small factories sufficiently large orders to get certain shoes made.
Many terms have been used in the footwear industry to describe Arnold’s genius – but as an old-shoe-dog and former competitor in the industry I should point out that his talent was not especially notable for salesmanship, merchandising or any particular element of the retailing or distribution end of the business. His art, his craft, his genius was in his buying – he had the eye of a designer, and a spectacular vision we likely will never see again.
His stores are closing – and his name will vanish soon when the last store closes on February 15th.
Being an independent merchant – in any field, especially footwear, is not a new challenge. It has always been difficult. Capital, suppliers, credit, staff, locations, rent – all are difficult enough for chains and conglomerates, extraordinarily so for the independent. They march to different drummers – they’ve been doing it for centuries, though they are a much more rare species now as the internet, Zappos, Amazon and many others are ‘just a click away’, the personal contact of the shoe salon without racks is fading from our lexicon.
Of all the independents, Arnold Churgin Shoes was a brilliant and long standing creation and both a landmark and trademark of something uniquely Calgarian – and sadly, it will be missed.
Most of us expect to live, do our best work, and then die. Some individuals are as large or larger in death than in life. Arnold Churgin flourished, then died. His legacy lived on in stores bearing his name selling shoes whose insoles bore his brand. And now, most sadly for those who admired him, he has died a second time …
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