By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
“Do you see 1340? Keep looking,” Taylor Lucy, owner of Mr T’s Shoe Services, 1007 E. 53rd St., told a customer scanning shelves full of numbered bags of shoes.
Lucy went to the back of his store and found the black shoes with clear heels. “I see it! I see it!” he told his patron. As the transaction came to a close, he reminded her he wasn’t even open yet.
“But anyway, you don’t care because you got what you’re looking for,” Lucy told her. “I don’t ever like to see a customer get disappointed.”
Lucy, 95, has served countless customers since he began repairing shoes in Hyde Park in 1971. Lately, he’s been in and out of his shop, adhering to no set schedule. Instead he’s relied on several part-time employees to operate the store, which is open only from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. But he can still recall the code to turn off the store’s alarm system.
Just last month, three days before Lucy’s 95th birthday, customers, relatives, friends and a reporter packed into the cramped shop to mark the occasion.
“We had a lot of company that day,” Lucy recalled, in a pinstripe suit, hat, dark green raincoat and black dress shoes — in good condition.
Lucy was born in Shiloh, Miss., in 1919. He learned the art of shoemaking in high school, which he graduated from in 1939. The next year, at the age of 20, he bought his first shoe shop in Westfield, Ala.
But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he was drafted, and moved up to Chicago to join his sister. After receiving training at Fort Devens, in Massachusetts, and learning how to use a 50-caliber machine gun, he was sent to Camp Shanks, in Orangeburg, N.Y., where he embarked on a ship to England. From there, he made his way to the continent, where he traversed France, Luxembourg and Portugal.
After Lucy returned in 1946, he bought another shoe repair shop, this time along 55th Street between Wabash and Michigan avenues. “They wanted me to re-enlist,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t intend to participate in another war.’”
“Then Korea came right after that,” Lucy added. “I said, ‘That was close.’”
At the same time Lucy had the shop, he studied electrical engineering under the GI Bill. Then he got a job as a livery driver. And around 1948 or 1949, he says, he began working in a luggage factory. But the gig lasted less than half a year. On his way to work every morning, he would check the Tribune for job listings. Then, at lunch, he would make calls to apply.
“Somebody wanted a shoemaker,” Lucy said. “I had an interview, I got a job.”
Just like that he began a stint as a factory shoemaker for the B&B Shoe Company. While he was there, he served as President of the United Shoemakers of America, Local 81.
“Most of the workers there were white,” Lucy said. But he was popular. “Every year I was elected the next year. For 15 years.”
One Wednesday, Lucy says, he walked out of work upset over unpaid wages. Soon afterwards, he worked as an electrical engineer at a factory for Zenith, at 1900 N. Austin Ave. Several years later an impulse decision to buy a shop at 1374 E. 53rd St. led him back to repairing shoes.
“I came over to look at the shop,” Lucy said. “I pulled out cash, paid for it right there on the spot.”
“I said ‘What the hell am I going to do with this shop?’” added Lucy, whose colleagues thought he was being ridiculous. A man offered to buy the shop, but Lucy held onto it. “I never did get in touch with him. Instead I quit Zenith.”
Business was good, Lucy says, but after he lost his lease in 1989 he moved, bringing a colleague with him. They set up shop first on 47th Street and then he moved into his current location, where he chanced upon an evicted shoe repair shop with its valuables splayed outside. He began renting the store, which still contains some of his predecessor’s equipment.
Lucy’s store appears as if a relic from another time. The shop is cluttered with shoes and equipment, including a well-worn Singer sewing machine. Faded portraits of Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, President Lincoln, MLK and Frederick Douglas adorn the walls. A poster from decades past reading “ELECT TONI,” bears a younger, bespectacled image of the present-day Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Yet despite the throw-away economy that now thrives on cheap labor overseas, Mr T’s Shoe Services is alive and well thanks to its dedicated customers. On a recent Wednesday, a flurry of midday customers suddenly appeared at his store. Two patrons, and then four more — including former Chicago Board of Education President Florence Cox arrived.
The first of the group was a man with a pair of black and grey Air Jordans, who wanted them cleaned and a crack repaired. Lucy couldn’t do the latter, he told him, because the material wasn’t leather. It was plastic.
“Make sure you can do what you tell the customer you can do,” said Lucy, who reassured his customer that he felt worse than him. “I won’t let you throw your money away.”
Armed with a confidence and grace that only time can teach, Lucy convinced the customer to leave his Nikes to be cleaned by next Tuesday.
“This is the best shoe repair place in the South Side within miles to come,” he earnestly told Lucy.