Our Man in Arlington

September 17, 2013 9:25 AM0 comments

Arlington’s roster of venerable old businesses reset last year when the granddaddy of them all, T.A. Sullivan & Son Monuments (founded in 1885), moved from Clarendon to Vienna.

I’ve since chatted with proprietors of what may be the oldest shops still serving our county, four paragons of entrepreneurial tenacity.

The longest-standing has to be the Public Shoe Store on Wilson Boulevard (established 1938). It’s run by Sholom Friedman, age 80, who began working for his father when he was five. After struggling during the Depression, founder Sam Friedman borrowed money and rented across the boulevard in the old Jones building (now Clarendon Metro stop). He doubled its size when the Ashton theater was torn down, moving the shoe store to the current location in the 1970s. “He was a smart man,” says the son, showing a photo of his parents meeting President Carter.

My mother took us there as kids in the 1960s, and Friedman confirmed a memory that the store kept 3 x 5 cards recording customers’ shoe sizes. The Public Shoe Store remained competitive with as many as six nearby stores, Friedman says, among them Hahn’s, Thom McAn, Miles, Stein’s Bootery, Kinney and Chandler’s.

Today’s threat is from the Internet. “Many people don’t go out retail shopping,” Friedman says.

Stop by Sam Torrey Shoe Service (established in 1945) at Lee Highway and George Mason and meet hard-working Armenian-American Kevork Tchalekian. He and his father bought the business from founder Sam Torregrossa (who died this April at 91) in 1986. Tchalekian, 50, has five employees and a collection of testimonial letters from satisfied customers. (I go there for heel plates and luggage repair.) “It’s a living but it won’t buy me a Mercedes,” he told me. With people replacing shoes more quickly, his “is a dying trade,” Tchalekian says. “A matter of time.”

Near Virginia Square on Wilson Blvd. you’ll spot Hurt’s Cleaners (opened in 1948). It was a family business for three generations until the founder’s grandson Richard Hurt sold out in 2006.

Enter Korean entrepreneur Dong Hyun Na. Choosing the motto “faithful, honest and kind services,” he remodeled to modernize and add latest technology for organic cleaning, shirt-press machines and computerization. “To build Hurt Cleaners as a brand, we have adopted a new logo as well as a vision statement that best reflects our goals,” he said through a translator. “We have designed a new website and hope to open social media outlets.”

Despite the economic downturn, he said, “our business has fortunately been profitable. Our customer base has been consistent, and we haven’t had to cut the number of employees.”

Next stop was in Westover, to Ayer’s Variety and Hardware (also from 1948). Ron and Wilma Kaplan have run the old-fashioned five-and-dime since buying it from John Ayers’ estate in 1977 and bringing in new staff (which now number 19).

Ron Kaplan says business is steady no matter the economic climate. “The only bad time was around 1996 when Home Depot opened.” But eventually, customers came back in droves “because their time is more important than money, and they can get in and out of Ayers in five minutes,” he says.

Though Kaplan would feel threatened a bit if a Wal-Mart came near, “I don’t check other stores’ prices – I charge what I have to do keep my business going.”

May they all.

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