The Story of Leslie’s Shoe Store
Author: Connie Carson
Connie is a well-known local story-teller and professional who has a passion for the history of the City of Belleville, in particular, the downtown streets.
In 1863, Thomas Wills built a store and storehouse at 255 Front Street. The red brick building with a white facade was constructed to look like a 3-story building, but it was actually only two stories. Little did he know the building was destined for downtown greatness.
William Malcolm Leslie, born in 1874, became a significant mover and shaker in Belleville. This is how the story unfolds.
Young Will was looking to better himself and enrolled at Ontario Business College, got certified as a bookkeeper, and couldn’t find a job. His friend Jim Skinner offered him a job as a barber’s apprentice earning a dollar a day.
A short time later, Sidney Vermilyea, a prominent shoe store owner, came into the barbershop for his morning shave. Will was having a hard time adjusting the chair and nearly threw Sidney out of it. Sidney admired Will’s spunk and hired him on the spot to work in his shoe store. Will worked at the store for 22 years until another piece of good luck came his way.
One day Will took a pair of shoes to his old cobbler friend John McKeown to have leather heels changed to rubber ones. John’s store was across the street from Sidney’s. When Will went back for the shoes later on, John told him he wasn’t feeling well, and the shoes were not ready yet. Will put them on the bench and went to work on them himself. John confessed he was prepared to retire, asked Will to buy him out, and sold him the store lock, stock, and barrel. They recorded every shoe in the store in a 5¢ notebook and sealed the deal with a handshake.
In 1919, Will became the proud owner of the building and stock at 255 Front Street. Leslie Shoe Store and a three-generational Leslie’s Shoe House were formed from that handshake! The name was changed to Leslie’s Shoe Store after World War II. His first store staff consisted of Annie Fargey, Arthur Hall, and Allen Lennox.
In the 1940s, Bryson Leslie entered the business after returning from World War II. His brother, Donald Leslie, joined him after finishing high school and Ontario Business College.
When William passed away in 1952, he had witnessed his beloved harness and leather trade decline. Still, he also saw the company’s expansion into every facet of the retail footwear business.
One of Don’s jobs in the morning was dusting the shoeboxes and sweeping floors. The wind would blow the dirt into the stores from the gravel streets at the time, making floor-sweeping nearly a full-time job.
Back in the old days, when the Leslies didn’t have shoes in stock, they would send runners to pick the shoes up from another store. Leslie’s had a service morning and afternoon for bicycles to make deliveries. Shoes were custom fit to suit the needs and lifestyle of each customer.
It was much more than just a shoe store. There were separate upstairs lounge rooms for the wives to relax while farmers shopped or sold their goods at the Farmer’s Market. Most customers arrived by horse, so they also had a harness sale and repair room to cut the leather right off the hide for their customers.
Leslie’s made sure their customers were always comfortable while shopping in the downtown area in general. They lined up boxes in the warehouse for shoppers to store their things for the day and provided chairs in front of their store for conversation.
They supplied baby carriages, walkers, and umbrellas for shoppers to borrow. There was even a special toy drawer for children to choose a treat before they left. At one time, there was a machine in the store specially designed for foot X-rays.
Don and Bryson eventually converted the upper floor of the building into The Ski Den. Leslie’s became the only place around that ski enthusiasts could purchase their ski equipment and accessories.
This writer’s memory of Leslie’s Shoe Store includes a trip to the store with my Granny on special occasions for graduation, birthday, return to school, and party shoes. The friendly sales staff would size my foot using a Brannick Device slider to measure how much my foot had grown since our last visit. The anticipation was palpable as I waited to see the results! I went from a size 4 to a size 6 shoe in ONE year, and then my feet stopped growing. Granny and I would discuss the practical shoes versus party shoes and pick the perfect pair somewhere in the middle. Mr. Leslie would bring out the treasure box, I chose a prize, and off we went to finish our shopping.
Robert Leslie brought a fresh, innovative approach to the business with new technology and a Pedorthist certification to help patients with foot problems.
The business began to slow down in the 1980s, and the Leslie’s decided to sell the store to Don’s nephew so that Don and Bryson could retire.
Many of the store’s suppliers had gone out of business. The staff could no longer keep up with the times and fluctuations in the economy.
They were a family of business savvy people who changed with the times until they couldn’t. The end of an era came when Bob locked the doors to Leslie’s Shoes for the last time in 1997.
This hard-working, kind and compassionate family wove a thread through the fabric of our downtown area for 78 years. The magical little store may be gone, but the legend lives on.