Why am I here?
At first blush, Bennie’s Shoes may seem an odd place for a female shoe blogger to visit. It’s a men’s shoe store, after all, and there was no way I was going to find anything in size 8 ½ women’s. But I wasn’t going for the shopping: I was going simply to explore one of the oldest shoe stores in the Southeast. Founded in 1909 as a shoe repair shop, Bennie’s is on its third-generation as a family-run business, and I wanted to see what had made them so successful. For once, the shoes were secondary.
That said, when my Uber driver pulled into the shopping center where Bennie’s Shoes is located, I thought the GPS had goofed. “This can’t be right,” I told him. “Bennie’s is supposed to be an upscale, one-of-a-kind institution, not some banal store you’d find in a strip shopping center.” It sells top quality men’s dress shoes, and its service and repair are legendary: they get requests from around the country. I couldn’t imagine that a tradition like Bennie’s could coexist with a Ross (Dress for Less!), an Office Depot, and a Home Goods.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I entered the store, well, its appearance inside was just as unassuming as it was outside. The store was basically a large rectangle. In-season shoes from brands such as Allen Edmonds, Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim, Rockport and Clark’s were on the right side of the store, and ubiquitous racks of sale shoes were on the left. Chairs, benches, and various displays of boots, belts and shoe care products dotted the middle.
The air was heavy with the smell of leather, polish and rubber, and machines in the repair room behind the checkout counter periodically hummed and shrieked their presence loudly. Not a single detail about the store was luxurious, or even particularly attractive. It was not at all what I expected.
Form and function
Then the owner came over to greet me. Brian Shemaria and his first cousin Mark, both grandsons of the founder, co-own Bennie’s today. As Brian showed me around the store, he patiently began educating me about the materials and construction each brand used. He knew them, literally and figuratively, inside and out. My fascination with high quality, Goodyear-welted shoes began relatively recently. I have a lot to learn, and for an hour, I was at the hands (feet?) of the master.
For example, I learned that a blucher, also known as a derby, is the best shoe for a high arch. That when the toe of the shoe is darker than the rest of the shoe, that’s called a burnished toe. That cedar shoe trees draw the moisture from your feet out of your shoes. (I had thought the point of shoe trees was to help the shoe hold its shape.)
According to Brian, Bennie’s is the number one independent account for Allen Edmonds, one of the highest quality shoe brands in the U.S. Given that track record, I mentioned my surprise that the store had so many casual shoes. “Business casual killed the wingtip,” Brian sighed. “And polyurethane or rubber soles are really comfortable.” He gestured to his own shoes.
And then Brian introduced me to Golden “Fox” Thornton, II. Fox has worked at Bennie’s for 36 years. I noticed his gorgeous captoe double monkstraps right away. When I asked him how many pairs he had, he exhaled slowly. “Jesus,” he said. “Summer or winter?” (He ultimately admitted to around 100 pairs.)
Fox loved style like Brian loved construction. Fox wistfully described the first pair of shoes he’d ever bought his wife, four decades ago: crocodile-embossed penny loafers from Allen Edmonds’ women’s line, back when they had a women’s line. He proudly recalled outfitting rapper Andre 3000 (OutKast) with a pair of white suede oxfords for a music awards show. He talked about his favorite brand for everyday (Florsheim Imperial), and the ones he wore when he wanted “a pop” (Magnanni).
A quiet synergy
It was my conversation with Fox that helped me understand the wonderful synergy of Bennie’s Shoes, and why it’s survived for over a hundred years. During my visit, a slow but steady stream of customers came and went. The phone rang constantly. The repair machines in the back never stopped. The pile of shoes to be shined grew, even though the shine technician was bent to his work the entire time I was there. And somehow, the store has held that rhythm for three generations. The sum of the parts was greater than the individual elements. Bennie’s may not look special, but it is every bit the gem I anticipated.
Bennie’s is at 2625 Piedmont Road in Buckhead. They sell online as well.