by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2012
1946, Joseph John LaRose came to town. Never to leave. Designed shoes for half a century, at least a quarter million pairs.
Fifty years and he closed the store. First it was at Laura Street and Monroe, right at Hemming Park, center of the city. Big stained glass piano in the middle of the store when you first walked in. He’d designed that too. It was 1983 he moved it to 33 West Monroe, further but not a block from Hemming. Fifty years and he closed the store and was dead the next month.
If he’d left, if he’d gone to New York, if he’d gone to L.A…. He never left, and by the end, nobody knew what he had. Always he advocated downtown, this beautiful place, he said, this beautiful building. Today his shoes walk cities all over the world, or stand patiently, collectible, behind glass, most continents.
Closing the shoe store, he died promptly thereafter, the shoes take on a life of their own, the city takes the building, eminent domain, tears it down to build a new main public library. He always stayed, he stayed right here. The city turned its back on him, but he never walked away.
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, filling three stories of his store downtown, LaRose hid shoes, some said as many as half a million. 1960s. Checkerboard avocado. Stilettos. Boots. Mules. Platform shoes. Boomerang heels. Teak springs. They went for a steal.
Two New Yorkers paid $200,000 for the core collection. Sotheby’s auctioned 71 pairs, as much as $6,000 per. Collectors, and boutique specialists, and buyers who know LaRose for their buyers, pick up deadstock: spiral and patchwork, alligator leather, slingback, wedge peep-toe, gold lamé, pink linen embroidered.
1950s, even ’60s, when everybody went downtown to shop, not everybody, everybody white, when people dressed to the nines to go downtown, when everyone wore hats, everybody knew LaRose’s. When they started to leave downtown, when all the stores went out like lights, when the big-box Sears Department Store vanished from the riverfront, Joseph John LaRose remained. He never walked away.
He stayed in his beautiful three-story store in this beautiful building with all his beautiful shoes. And if most locals forgot LaRose, if most locals no longer came in, Jackie Kennedy had come, Betty Grable had bought LaRoses on site, and Joan Crawford. So too Brooke Shields. And when Jayne Mansfield died in that horrible car smashup, she was wearing LaRoses. Rumors she was decapitated were untrue.
I spoke to him. End of days. He recognized I was no customer. Downtown had dried up, desiccated, a raisin, today’s comeback unimaginable. I heard the dry saliva at the corners of his mouth. He chastised me. I had no money and I had no taste.
“You don’t even know,” he chided me sharply, “why you’re down here.”
I wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but he frightened me. He wanted me to tell him how wrong he was too. That he frightened me saddens me still.
Whatever beautiful object he saw, so eulogized The New York Times, LaRose marveled how to make it a woman’s shoe. A gleam in a cobweb closed off in an upper corner, an accidental prism in a fractured window. A beetle that does not know it’s a jewel. The perfect shine in the asymmetrical green of the coming together of alligator scales. The all-engulfing pupil in the goldenrod eye of an owl. The strong delicate pink of the stock flower next to the tulip.