Remembering Uncle Herman's Chattanooga Shoe Store

Sunday, August 23, 2009 - by Harmon Jolley
The likeness of Uncle Herman Brener appeared in advertisements.  Click to enlarge.
The likeness of Uncle Herman Brener appeared in advertisements. Click to enlarge.

We’ve just concluded one of the more popular times of the year for buying children’s shoes – back to school. For many readers, that time used to occur a few weeks later, with the day after Labor Day being the first day of classes. It was a time when downtown offered all the variety of a shopping mall, though we were exposed to the weather, had to watch when crossing busy intersections, and smelled odors emanating from old buildings on a rainy day – it was a truly wonderful era in which to grow up!

In the 800 block of Market Street, one could shop for new school clothes at Loveman’s, buy school supplies at S.S. Kress, and, with the help of a metal shoe horn, squeeze into new shoes at Uncle Herman’s Chattanooga Shoe Store. “Hmmm…. your feet have grown a lot since last school year,” said many mothers to their children.

Herman Brener was the proprietor of the Chattanooga Shoe Store. Retailing was in his lineage.
His father, Max Brener, had come to Chattanooga 1889 from Lithuania as a peddler, and then opened Brener’s Department Store on Main Street in 1896. The Main Street area became like a second downtown during Max Brener’s time there, and Herman Brener learned retailing by working in his father’s store.

In 1929, Herman Brener borrowed $2,500 to launch his own business selling shoes at a storefront in the 700 block of Market Street. Two years later, undaunted by the bad economy, he moved one block south to the 800 block. He had few neighbors, for there were only two other stores still in business on that side of the street.

The shoe retailer knew that his customers didn’t have much money to spend in those days of the Great Depression. So, he offered shoes that he had bought in large lots that included some blemished at the factory. “Back in ’31, a $2.99 shoe was a quality shoe and a $4.99 shoe was really high priced,” he told the Chattanooga News-Free Press in a May 2, 1961 interview. “At that time I bought a lot of shoes for 75 cents a pair and sold them for $1.”

The nickname of “Uncle Herman” has at least three different accounts in newspaper articles. One said that the moniker came from Mr. Brener’s practice of giving away balloons and candy to children who came to his store. Another credits WDEF announcer Luther Massingill with using the name during radio commercials. A third story is that it came from his being the uncle of another area retailer, Henry Rubenstein, who had a clothing store in Rossville.

Whatever the origin, Uncle Herman was featured for many years in caricature form in newspaper advertisements for his shoe store. His likeness also was seen on the signs above the store, to the point that many customers called the store Uncle Herman’s and didn’t mention the name of Chattanooga Shoe Store.

Though the building was eventually remodeled with a façade to make it look more modern, one element remained the same. Like several of the downtown retailers, Uncle Herman’s featured an old elevator. Theirs was affectionately known as “Old Creepy.” Customers often took the ancient lift to the second floor showroom.

Herman Brener passed away in 1969, and the business was then incorporated. His widow, Ruth Brener, was president. Jeff Durham, who had joined the store in the mid-1930’s as a teen-ager, was vice-president. Another long-time employee, Durham’s wife, Frances, was secretary.

Jeff Durham noted the many changes in the shoe industry in a March 3, 1976 interview with the Chattanooga Times. Large national shoe chains appeared on the directories of most new shopping malls. Uncle Herman’s business had held steady due to their specializing in hard-to-find sizes, but their children’s department had been eliminated. Manufacturing had become a near monopoly, with remaining shoemakers taking their businesses overseas in search of cheaper labor.

Still, Uncle Herman’s Chattanooga Shoe Store continued serving customers. “I owe everything to two uncles,” Jeff Durham said in an article published in the March 30, 1979 Chattanooga Times. “My real uncle, Jeff Lowe, who got me the job at Chattanooga Shoe Store, and “Uncle Herman” Brener, who taught me all there is to know about the shoe business.”

In the late 1970’s, retail buildings were torn down in the block bordered by Ninth, Market, and Tenth Streets and Georgia Avenue to establish Miller Park. This led to a project that became today’s Miller Plaza. Uncle Herman’s, S.S. Kress, and other buildings were slated for demolition in 1982.

The owners of Uncle Herman’s decided to close their operation permanently, rather than relocate. A May 20, 1982 article in the Chattanooga Times announced that Uncle Herman’s was closing its doors. Ruth Brener was quoted as not favoring the expansion of the park. “If they would put some parking downtown, it would be better than parks. They took away all the parking on Market Street; that was the worst thing they could have done.”

Large crowds participated in the going out of business sale at Uncle Herman’s. Signs in the windows promised savings of up to seventy-five percent. After fifty-one years in business at the location, Uncle Herman’s became a fond memory of Chattanooga’s once-bustling retail center in downtown.


OTHER SHOE STORES

You may also remember these from your back-to-school shopping trips.

* JUVENILE BOOTERY
This store was located at 13 East Seventh Street, just down the hill from lunch at the Home Plate. It was operated by E. Crisman Hill prior to his passing in 1969. I remember getting a Jonny Quest secret decoder ring there in conjunction with some new PF Flyer shoes.

* ROSSVILLE SHOE STORE
This was a familiar destination for those who shopped in Rossville. Proprietors were spouses Isadore and Raymonde Jaffe.

* JOHN POPE’S BUSTER BROWN SHOES

After entering the shoe business in Dayton, Tennessee, John Pope established stores in Hixson and Brainerd in the 1980’s. The store specialized in children’s shoes, and had a nice play area for young children to try out their new Buster Browns. The Hixson store was located for a few years next to Showbiz Pizza Place, where kids could dance in their new shoes to the sounds of Fatz and the Rock-afire Explosion.

If you have memories of Uncle Herman’s Chattanooga Shoe Store, or other shoe stores, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

A portion of the east side of the 800 block of Market Street was torn down for Miller Plaza.  This is how the block looked in 1950.  Click to enlarge.
A portion of the east side of the 800 block of Market Street was torn down for Miller Plaza. This is how the block looked in 1950. Click to enlarge.
- Photo2 by courtesy of Chattanooga-Hamilton County library

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