THE PERFORMANCE OF MONTANO’S SHOE STORE
Years and years ago my Compobosso-Guardielfiera Italy-born grandfather immigrated to NY State via Ellis Island to repair and eventually sell shoes. I remember him well: a large, silent, gently commanding and charismatic presence who visited our home a block away from his in Saugerties NY. Every Sunday he came and I performed the ritual of getting his approval as he sat in the side room with me while I stumbled through that week’s piano lesson. It ritualistically ended when I would turn around, face him and try to gauge how much he liked my “concert.” Getting Grandpa Montano’s blessing was a good thing and his response was never over effusive, patronizing or boundary breaking….just kind attention with the promise of a continuation of his weekly listening and caring presence. The 50 cents he always gave me and his mantra that he always said, ” Could do better,” something he said a lot about a lot, were incidental to his being there and his support but admittedly important components to the whole experience which was a fine introduction to my learning the art of performing, a genre and vocation that I continue even now, 50 years later. Everything was there: good attention/focus/audience/continuity/challenge/support/culture/feelings and the irony of the same response repeated every time. And MONEY! put them all together and you’ve got excellent training for a performance art career. Thanks Grandpa.
But back to the shoe store. Grandpa was nine when his mother died and he and his father lived with his aunt. He was the only surviving child of five siblings, had three years schooling and started shoemaking when he was 9, a practice that he continued for 10 years in Guardielfiera-Compobosso. School was in the morning and work in the afternoon. The pay was food.
When he came to America at 19 ( the Italians came after the Irish, just something sociological to think about) he lived with distant relatives in Hudson NY and worked there to repay his fare which they had shipped to him so that he could come here. He stayed in Hudson three years repairing and selling shoes, paid off his debt, then tried to find a place in Coxsackie and couldn’t so he moved to Saugerties NY ( it says Friendly/Historic Saugerties on the sign as you enter the village) which is on the west side of the Hudson River. There he opened Montano’s Shoe Store, made enough money for Maria Chioco’s fare and sent for his wife to be who also came via Ellis Island and was as spiritual, silently dignified, stalwart and devoted as her husband to be. Grandma and Grandpa raised their family here, not in Glasco, the village 15 minutes south where all of the other Italians lived, but here, in Saugerties, where the “business” is/was. Another sociological fine point.
Montano’s Shoe Store continues, some 94 years later, changing only locations( moving one store north) but never the “look” or intention to serve or the outstanding quality of their products. Oh, yes, there is one change: absent from the store is the wood-paneled five foot high machine which we visited daily as kids when we went to see my Dad. We would stick our feet inside the two slots so that we could see our foot bones, never realizing the foolishness of frequent x-rays (nobody did in the 50’s). It disappeared from the store in the 60’s. Question: what are we inadvertently doing today that will be verboten tomorrow?
My dad and uncle ran Montano’s with their father along with my other uncle who worked in the bank and would come and help out at emergency full-force times. These days had designated code names , for example: back to school; Christmas; rush; no tax week; new spring line. We all knew this secret language and were alert to what it meant: Montanos rushed through lunch or didn’t eat at all; Montanos focused fiercely and their eyes went from feet to shoe box exclusively; and everyone was on call, children included, especially my mother who actually seemed happy to be summoned from housewifery to another kind of interaction, one more adultly public. Even though Mom was an accomplished painter and volunteered for several committees in town, she was absolutely loyal to Montano’s Shoe Store. Her dyed shoes for weddings were legendary and demanded accuracy and an artists sensibility, one she had in overabundance.
My fascination has never waivered for the actions which the Shoe Store people perform. It’s the place where everyone who enters is bowed to, in a way. Customers sit and their feet are touched, felt…toes are gauged as to their position in the shoe about to be sold (the very famous Montano trademark) and the art of shoe fitting is a reliable and professional rite of passage performed on everyone who comes through the door. Since visiting India and witnessing the foot touching rituals of respect performed there, I am again left with comparisons that I would like to peruse, but this is not the place for this anthropological dialogue.
The shoe store is the place where a whole lot of kneeling and a whole lot of healing happens. For isn’t the foot one of the most important places in the body? If the foot isn’t comfortable and well-soled, the body cant maneuver through life smoothly. We need support to defy the pull of gravity and walk well in this mysterious and ever-moving-turning planet earth with its daily challenges and calls for discriminating sure-footed compassion.
Montanos Shoe Store is in a village which is gentrifying as we speak and filling to the brim with antique stores, a biscotti bakery, a many “starred” NY Times best restaurant and a few Soho-like gourmet coffee/lunch spots. It’s here in Saugerties, a somewhat best kept secret village, where Grandpa Montanos Shoe Store sells womens, childrens and mens: boots, sneakers, clogs, slippers, shoes, shoelaces, shoepolish and laces. Just like it did in 1906. Orthodics is new and a 90’s addition as Grandpa’s initial vision continues.
For 94 years, all of the Montanos who have worked there and do work there( too many to list) and an incredibly supportive staff have been kneeling down at their customer’s feet and fitting/healing:
the drop footed
the foot splayed/slew footed/out toed
the arthritically reconfigured
the ingrown toenailed
the mallet toed
the post stroked
the tibial torsioned
the new hip/new kneed
the swollen footed
the high arched
the heel spured
the claw toed
the fat pad dimished
the plantar fasiatused
the ligament bruised
the one leg length compromised
the club footed
the diabetic foot infected
the Raynauds-cold footed
the one foot bigger discrepancied
the broken toed
….as well as the tri-athletes, the dancers, the walkers, the first graders, the carpenters needing steel toe shoes, and as Joan Reinmuth reminded me…… “the sandals, shoes and boots for the children….and the nurses shoes, hunters shoes, firemens shoes, electricians shoes and party goers shoes.” And I most happily add: the cowgirl/cowboy boots! Now you see why people walk out of the store after a shoe treatment from a Montano, dancing and crying with gratitude and no-pain joy!
For 94 years Montano’s Shoe Store has seasonally and tastefully decorated their front windows to reflect the seasons and the new styles in stock.
For 94 years three generations of Montanos, their families and staff have been supported financially; food, clothing, schooling, cars, from Montanos Shoe Store.
For 94 years sons and daughters and sons of sons have worked there. Now third and fourth generation sons are owners.
For 94 years the reputation for providing a good fit, good service, and the respect of a family atmosphere continues the tradition.
Recently three of the staff were not at the store and with only three others there during “back to school” rush, they needed someone to answer the ever ringing phone. I “performed ” that duty, watched from the back room and observed an incredible , living performance:
Their performance of focusing on the task at hand with daily, supreme patience-9-5
Their performance of service to all people all day long, 9-5
Their performance of ordering/shelving/stocking/sending/adjusting/building up/putting supports in shoes, 9-5
Their performance of accommodating squirming children, tremoring elders, undecided/picky boomers, returnees, 9-5
Their performance of seeing every kind of unmentionable foot, sock, foot condition imaginable, 9-5
Their performance of maintaining a traditional look so long that its back in style again and has become retro, 9-5
Their performance of family business being well done with dignity and caring service, 9-5
Their performance of healing disguised as business, 9-5
The performance artist in me is in awe! The ENDURANCE ARTIST in me applauds!
Thanks Grandpa and Grandma Montano. Grandpa, I know you would say, “Could do better,” but I am looking at the picture of you in the front window and hearing you say, “I BLESS YOU ALL.”
Linda Mary Montano, 2000