Jerry Summers: Chattanooga Shoe Store aka Uncle Herman's

Thursday, October 21, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The trade balance in the shoe industry in America is likely that of other goods and products that are made in China, Taiwan, and other parts of the world.

            If the shoe is proudly proclaimed “Made in U.S.A.” they are usually put together here with imported materials.

            The questions of tariffs, protectionism, balance of trade, cost of production and wages for the politicians to argue and hassle over before the 2022 Congressional and 2024 Presidential elections are prominently still in existence.

            A quick click on to the world wide web shows a wide variety of styles, models, and prices to help you make a stylish selection of footwear.  There is even a website “Still Made in the U.S.A.com,” which lists the locations to purchase the above finished products which are primarily locally produced with foreign imported parts.

             Until 1982 shoppers in downtown Chattanooga had a wide variety of locales in which to spend their money on shoes as part of their ensembles.

            Millers, Lovemans, Personality Shop and the La Dean Shop were successful clothing stores in the city and Rossville.

            However, for the most frugal (or poorer) there was a popular other option for families to clothe themselves and their offspring with shoes at lower prices.

            In 1929 Herman Brener borrowed $2,500 to start his own business selling overstocked or blemished footwear from factories at discount prices because of the Depression.

            His father, Max, had come to Chattanooga as a legal immigrant from Lithuania as a peddler and had worked diligently enough to open Brener’s Department Store on Main Street in 1896 while seeking the American Dream of owning his own business.

            Herman learned the merchandise trade while working for his father and this allowed him to sell shoes at a storefront in the 700 block of Market Street.

            Times were tough in the Depression, but Herman survived and in 1931 moved to the 800 block of Market Street.  He wisely bought shoes in large lots from American shoe manufacturers at discount prices that also included ones with blemishes or flaws on them that would sometimes be referred to as “seconds.”

            In a May 2, 1961, interview with the Chattanooga News Free Press he claimed that in 1931 a shoe that sold for $2.99 was a quality shoe and a $4.99 pair was really high priced.

            When you could buy a lot of shoes for 75 cents a pair and sell them for $1 Brener made a good profit.

            A popular item in the $1.99 market were white moccasins that many a young individual probably wore to school without any socks.  Unfortunately, they were not weatherproof, and their longevity was often short-lived.

            Popular attractions at Uncle Herman’s were the ancient elevator to the second-floor showroom known as “Old Creepy,” and the mysterious x-ray machine that you could insert your foot and see the bones in your feet through this magical device as an early version of the MRI.  No statistics were ever compiled as to whether any youthful (and older) user ever developed cancer from this and similar machines in the Chattanooga area.

            Former Central High and Vanderbilt University football player Grady Wade started his employment for Uncle Herman in the eighth grade running the shaky, decrepit elevator and continued on Saturdays through his early college years.

            He eventually would move into sales and with his unique “gift of gab” was often able to convince customers to purchase either a “too loose or too tight pair of shoes that were just the right size.”

            With the help of a metal shoehorn many children were able to squeeze into new shoes of odd sizes.

            Retired Criminal Court Clerk Chief Deputy Edna Camp was also a Saturday employee at the age of 15, working in the children’s downstairs department with a charismatic elderly lady who was called “Aunt Ethel.”

            Rumor has it that the underage teenagers were paid the sum of $5 for their work at Uncle Herman’s.  The statute of limitations has run on the question of what method of legal tender they were compensated with for their efforts.

            Herman Brener died in 1969 and his widow, Ruth Brener, long time employee since his teens Jeff Durham, and his wife Frances Durham continued until 1982 when the landmark in downtown Chattanooga closed its doors.

            Despite larger national shoe chains appearing in the new shopping malls, Uncle Herman's business was still able to survive due to it specializing in hard-to-find sizes, but their children’s department had to be eliminated.

            Surviving American shoemakers would eventually take their businesses overseas in search of cheaper labor costs (Sound familiar?)

            Finally in the late 1970s the movement to take down the old historic building under the guise of progress (also sound familiar?) at the retail building in the block bordered by Ninth, Market, Tenth Streets and Georgia Avenue were demolished to establish the Waterhouse Pavilion.

            The elimination of downtown parking on Market Street also continued to contribute to the demise of Uncle Herman’s Chattanooga Shoe Store.

            At that point historian Harmon Jolley correctly spoke in a 2009 article that “after 51 years in business at the location, Uncle Herman’s became a fond memory of Chattanooga’s once bustling retail center in downtown!”

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

           

           


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