Faces of Downtown: Don Leslie
Don Leslie has been a part of downtown Belleville for his entire life. Don, now in his nineties, started working for his father at Leslie’s shoe store, when he was 10 years old. His original duties were to dust the shoe boxes and merchandise, and sweep the floors. The wind would blow dust into the stores from Front Street, which was gravel at the time, making dusting a full time job on its own. On Saturday mornings Don would chop the ice blocks that were dropped off at the store. The ice went into a basin and would melt during the day, for customers to drink out of a single cup.
When Leslie’s didn’t have a pair of shoes in stock, they would send Don and another boy as runners to pick the shoes up from another store. The runners were quick to get to know everyone that worked or frequently visited downtown. Leslie’s had a delivery service morning and afternoon by bicycle, which Don helped out with as well. When he was old enough, he began serving customers, custom fitting each of them with a pair of shoes to suit their needs and lifestyles. Help was scarce during the war, so to help his father, Don worked after school and Saturdays. He worked 43 hours per week for $11.25 per week. This was a great pay rate at the time, but it also came with the sacrifice of Don’s time and social life.
The staff at Leslie’s did a lot to make sure that their customers were comfortable while shopping in the store, and in the downtown area in general. They lined up boxes in the warehouse for people to store their things for the day while they shopped. They also had baby carriages, walkers, and umbrellas that customers could borrow. On nice summer days, Don’s father would send him to get ice cream for the customers and staff. They used shoe horns for spoons and leather knives to cut the ice cream. Don says that the hardest thing to do in business is to get people through the door the first time. After that, you keep them with excellent products and service.
Leslie’s became more than just a shoe store. The store had a room upstairs for women to wait while farmers shopped or sold their goods on Saturdays or smoked cigars on the main floor of the shop. They also had a horse harness sale and repair room where they would cut leather as needed for customers, right off the hide. Don and his brother also eventually converted the upper floor into what they called the ski den, after it sat empty for several years. Leslie’s became the only place around that ski enthusiasts could get their gear.
Leslie’s shoe store was located at 255 Front Street, which is currently occupied by the Belle HOP. This building went further back than any other building on the street. At the time, the “better” stores were on the west side of Front street. Here they were protected from the sun and wind. Business owners wanted to look prestigious, especially during the depression. The staff at Leslie’s made their store’s aesthetic a priority. They made sure the windows and sidewalks were clean, and no light bulbs were out. During the war, stores were on quotas from factories and Leslie’s could only get so many pairs of shoes. When they sold a pair, they would keep the box on display to make it look like the store was still fully stocked.
Don’s father passed away in 1952, he and his brother took over the business. Many changes were made to keep up with technology and their customers changing shopping habits and lifestyles. Business began to slow down in the 80’s and the Leslie’s decided to sell the store to Don’s nephew so that Don and his brother could retire. By 1997 many of the store’s suppliers had gone out of business and the staff were no longer able to keep up with the times and changing economy. Leslie’s shoe store was closed that May.
Don remembers downtown Belleville being the hub of all business in the city. The busiest time was always Saturdays, when the farmers would come to town to shop and sell their produce at the market on the ground floor of city hall. The Quinte Hotel brought in a lot of travellers staying in the area. Highway 2 was the main highway between Quebec and Windsor, so Belleville became a common place to stop for the night in between.
Belleville had six shoe stores in the 40s and 50s. There were also many bake shops, ladies wear stores, cleaners, and tobacco stores. Don remembers each of the stores having lots of employees and different price ranges from store to store. He says that each store had it’s own smell from different types of smoke. The men that gathered at Leslie’s would commonly smoke cigars, but according to Don, you could tell where someone bought a product based on the smell alone.
Cars were around but not common at the time, and most people came into town by horse. There was a place available where people could keep their horses for the day, so they could walk through the downtown. Don remembers eventually getting a car and driving down Pinnacle next to the Pinnacle Street Train, something that now it would be hard to imagine. There was a police station on Campbell street and ground patrol officers got to know the downtown area so well that it was easy for them to spot any irregular activity. Policing and crime rates changed a lot when police got cruisers.
Don left the shoe store at the age of 61. He spends his summers at his cottage and the winters at the Quinte Gardens retirement residence. He enjoys spending time outdoors swimming, canoeing, biking and skiing, though some of these activities he can’t do as easily as he once could. Don says he does what he wants, when he wants to, because
that’s how he was raised to live. Don believes that downtown Belleville is on its way back up and is excited to see how the area grows and improves.