by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2012
1946, Joseph John LaRose comes to town. Never to leave. If he’d left, his shoes would’ve become a bigger deal yet. Like they’re more important now that he’s dead.
Fifty years and he closes 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 closes the store and he’s 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 nobody knew what he had. Always he advocated downtown, this beautiful place, he said, this beautiful building.
Closes the shoe store, he dies 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.
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, three stories of his store downtown, LaRose hid shoes, between a quarter and half a million, away. 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 shoes, as much as $6,000 for a pair. 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 everyone started to leave downtown, when all the stores went out, when all the whites with money stopped coming, Joseph John LaRose remained. He never went 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 LaRose on site, and Joan Crawford. So too Brooke Shields. And when Jayne Mansfield died in that horrible car smashup, she was wearing LaRose’s. Rumors that she was decapitated are untrue. I spoke to him. End of days. He recognized I was no customer. Downtown had dried up, desiccated, raisin. I heard the dry saliva at the corners of his mouth. He chastised me. I had no money, had no taste.
“You don’t even know,” he chided me sharply, “why you’re downtown.”
I wanted to tell him how wrong he was, but he frightened me. Now I know he wanted me to tell him how wrong he was too. That he frightens me still saddens me.
Whatever beautiful object, so eulogized The New York Times, LaRose marveled how to make it a woman’s shoe. A cobweb closed off into an upper corner, long stagnant air in a long-enclosed stale structure. Stained glass warped and fallen into its angles since Soviet rules squared away the geometrics of passion shaped in art upon earth.
So butterfly wings became the many-eyed canvas of multiple seeing upon the wings of the back of the beast. So the swamp decides it must discern how beautifully to walk women across the boards above the brutal swamps. What’s most to-do with a city, but walk it?
So Joseph LaRose takes into his hands each heel and ball, designs for each of us personally the way, individually, to step into, forward, and across this city, snatching story after story, tucking the smallest and most secret messages into the toes of our alligator pumps.