Paul Wilson: His windows are the worst, but no one's got shoes like Sugar

Shoe King, on Barton Street East near Ottawa, is a jungle. You'll find Les Sugar there, and shoes left over from the '70s, and maybe a squirrel.
Les Sugar is your guide through the chaos at Shoe King on Barton Street East. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Wander into Les Sugar’s jumbled shoe store on Barton Street East and you’ll soon be lost and begging for help.

"It’s designed that way," says Sugar with a smile. Nothing accidental about the chaos that reigns here.

Sugar is king of shoes. Or he used to be.

For decades, it said Shoe King in big red letters across the front of his store. Now it just says Shoe. What’s up with that?

"The city," Sugar says. Somebody at the hall thought a few of those letters looked kind of loose and figured a good wind might bring them down. Sugar got an official warning. A big fine was mentioned.

So he called the sign company. For $200, they tightened up the letters. Not good enough, said the city. So Sugar just pulled the offending letters down. Business got no worse.

Fifty years in footwear

The family has been in the shoe business for 50 years. Sugar’s father Tivadar and his uncle Frank had a shop on Kenilworth. In the mid-‘80s, Frank went to Westdale Shoes and father to Shoe King at Barton and Ottawa.

Les Sugar earned a math degree at McMaster, but his future was in footwear.

The store used to be in a good location, Sugar says. But that stretch of Barton has being going the wrong way for a very long time.

Look in the Shoe King front windows. You won’t see anything you like on display there, guaranteed. The shoes are dusty, discoloured, some even coming apart at the seams.

Sugar gave up on those windows years ago. They get broken often, the last incident just last month. The repair was $1,000.

But there are regular customers who know enough to walk in, right past those grimy windows. Others are just plain curious.

Shoes from another time

Sugar’s stock is not just off the truck. Quite the opposite. Many of his shoes – and he has thousands and thousands of pairs – are from another time, 30 or 40 years ago. A time when they still made footwear in Canada.

Over here, some nice North Star suede runners, which came out of the old Bata factory. "It was in Batawa, just off the 401," Sugar says. "I went there a lot."

Some may remember the earth shoe from the '70s, with the curious negative heel. The Shoe King’s got them, originals, made in Canada, $60 and up.

He has vintage Sorels of every kind, from the Kaufman plant in Kitchener. He bought up plenty when the company when bankrupt a dozen years ago.

There are made-in-Montreal Pajar sheepskin-lined boots for $350. And made-in-Stoney-Creek Cougars.

Get your Cuban heels here

For expectant mothers with swollen feet, there are shoes from Hungary with open toes, open heels. Kiddie shoes from Italy. Size 20 runners. Michael Jackson The-Day-The-Music-Died knock-offs.

And the Cuban heel never went out of style here. "It’s for guys with tall girlfriends," Sugar explains.

He’s at the store Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon. He keeps the heat low. He does have a big squirrel on the premises. I heard him first, then saw him charging across the top of the stacks.

Sugar is 65 and his time in this store is coming to a close. It’s months ‘til the end, he says, not years.

Some time ago, he realized the Web was an easier way to move product. "I could be out on a pasture somewhere and do about as much business," Sugar says. So now he is

On the Web, no one breaks your windows, squirrels aren’t much of a problem, and old signs don’t blow down on a windy day.

Still, Shoe King is genuine Barton culture. It’ll be a shame to see it go.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.