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Harris Blackwood: Back in the day, a new school year meant new shoes
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

For kids in school, summer vacation starts off with a bang, but in those final days before going back to the books, the excitement takes a turn.

I understand why school starts so early these days, but I miss the time when we went back on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

By the time we reach the end of August, we were ready to go back and see friends and start the routine of school.

It also meant back-to-school shopping. There would usually be a pair of sneakers (or as we called them “tenny” shoes), and if the price was right, Mama would buy me a new pair of dress shoes or “hard” shoes.

At the place we bought shoes, there was a large woman with her hair piled up on her head. When it was time to try on shoes, she was in charge.

She would tell me to put my foot down on the Brannock device, which measured the length, width and arch of the foot. She would grab my foot by the top and make sure I was firmly anchored on the measuring surface. She would run her thumb down the side and make sure the device was in the proper position.

After sizing, she would disappear to the back and come out with a couple of pairs to try. When she was happy with the fit, she would look up at my mama.

“Mama, we’ve got a good fit and a little bit of room to grow in,” she would say as she depressed the toe of the shoe. She called all parents mama or daddy.

One year, I wanted a pair of penny loafers. The sales lady launched into a lecture of how the loafer lacked the support I needed. I went home loaferless.

As she was ringing up the shoes, she would also make a pitch for some nice dress socks and a can of shoe polish.

“Boys are rough on the toes of shoes and this will keep them looking good for church,” she told mama, who was buying all of this hook, line and sinker.

When it came to clothes, we generally shopped at Belk.

Belk had many partners across the South. The Monroe store was Gallant-Belk (as was the one here in Gainesville).

Harold and Betty Sisk were a husband and wife team who managed the store.

Mr. Sisk was one of those clothing merchants who could look at you from across the store and find your size before you started browsing.

Early on, it was double-knee jeans in the husky size. I found out that they still make double-knee jeans. I didn’t take offense, but I hated the term “husky.” That’s the same name they call sled dogs. I guess that’s better than wide-load jeans.

I don’t know if going back to school is the big deal it was when I was a kid, but it was fun.

I have heard many Gainesvillian’s story about being fitted for kid’s shoes by Bill Schrage at Saul’s. They had that x-ray machine that would let you look at the foot inside the shoe. You didn’t leave the store with an ill-fitting pair of shoes.

The retail world needs more people like the shoe lady, Harold Sisk and Bill Schrage. About the only improvement we can expect these days is faster Internet speed to order stuff online.

Something is wrong with that picture.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on

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