by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2012
1946, Joseph John LaRose moves to town. Never again would he leave. If he had left, his shoes would have been an even bigger deal. Like they’re a bigger deal now that he’s dead.
Fifty years and he closes the store. First it was at Laura and Monroe Streets, right at Hemming Plaza, right at the center of the city. Big stained glass piano in the middle of the store when you first walked in. He had designed that too. It was 1983 he moved it to 33 West Monroe, less than a block from the plaza. Fifty years and he closes the store and he’s dead the following month.
If he had left, if he had gone to New York, if he had gone to L.A. He never left and nobody knew what he had. Nobody knew. Always he advocated downtown, this beautiful place, he said, this beautiful building. Then he closes the shoe store, he dies promptly thereafter, the shoes take on a life of their own, and the city takes the building, eminent domain, and tears it down to build a new main public library. He always stayed right here, and so: nobody knew what he had.
What they found inside after he died—The appraiser from Sotheby’s called it King Tut’s tomb. The shoes moved through auctions at Sotheby’s, to collectors and designers in Los Angeles and Tokyo. Behind the shoes on display in the three stories of his downtown store, he had between a quarter and half a million shoes hidden away. Colorful shoes. Stilettos. Boots. Mules. Platform shoes. Boomerang heels. They went for a steal. Two New Yorkers paid $200,000 for the core collection. Sotheby’s auctioned 71 shoes, up to $6,000 for a pair.
1950s, even 1960s, when everybody went downtown to shop, not everybody, everybody white, when people dressed to the nines to go downtown, when everybody wore hats, everybody knew LaRose’s. When everybody started to leave downtown, when all the stores went out, when all the white people with money stopped coming, Joseph John LaRose stayed. He never went away. He stayed in his beautiful three-story store in its beautiful building with all his beautiful shoes. And if most locals forgot LaRose was here, if most locals no longer came in, Jackie Kennedy had come in, Betty Grable had bought LaRose’s shoes, and Joan Crawford. So would Brooke Shields. And when Jayne Mansfield died in that horrible car smashup, she was wearing LaRose’s shoes. Rumors that she was decapitated are untrue.