Montreal

Before closing for good, Quebec City shoe store finds 'treasures' behind hidden door

When the Blanchet family decided the time had come to put the key in the lock of the landmark shoe store their parents had founded in 1936, they thought they would be writing the last chapter of its history; but they ended up uncovering a whole new story.

Family-run Chaussures Blanchet discovers hundreds of vintage shoes, as family empties inventory

Lucette Blanchet-Garneau said all of the shoes found in a hidden closet inside the family business were made in Quebec City, which had several manufacturers in the mid 1900s. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

The announcement that a Quebec City landmark — Chaussures Blanchet — would soon be closing gave many families in the region a little pang.

The business broke the news to its faithful customers last summer, after 85 years in the historic Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood.

But last week, the Blanchet family discovered some history they weren't aware of — a treasure trove of vintage shoes in mint condition, hidden behind a door they hadn't known about.

The shoe store has existed on Richelieu street since 1936, selling flats, boots and high heels of all shapes and sizes, in addition to offering shoe repairs and orthopedic services.

With rising taxes, online shopping and a global pandemic, the family decided it was time to call it quits, and slowly started selling the inventory.

Lucette Blanchet-Garneau said her son was breaking up a shelving unit in the storage area when he called her over.

Behind the shelves was a small brown door that hadn't been opened in decades.

Inside were rows and rows of boxes, which contained close to 400 pairs of shoes, all manufactured in Quebec City around the 1960s.

"They're treasures," said Blanchet-Garneau, pointing to some of the shoes they found: green leather women's brogues, cream leather loafers and brown suede shoes.

When news spread, customers quickly showed up or called, wanting to get their hands on a pair. But Blanchet-Garneau says the family wants to do a proper inventory of the collection.

"We want things to be done right, and to make sure the story behind the shoe doesn't get lost."

Lucette Blanchet-Garneau stands in front of the hidden closet which contained more than 400 pairs of vintage shoes no one knew existed. (Mireille Roberge/Radio-Canada)

With decades of experience, looking at the labels and the logos on the boxes, Blanchet-Garneau is able to tell which Quebec City manufacturer designed the shoes.

"We had many companies in the lower town — there were tanners, there were manufacturers — we were very good shoemakers here in Quebec City," she said.

Family home 

Blanchet-Garneau said, given the quality of the shoes, she believes they may have been put aside because they came out of the factory with some sort of minor flaw.

Those pairs were sent to her father, Phydime Blanchet, who would repair and sell them to customers at a reasonable price during the post-war period in the late 1940s.

That's when the family started needing more space for their own inventory, eventually turning rooms and closets of the family home into storage.

With eight kids, the family eventually moved — the children's room, with flowered and animal wallpaper, became a stock room.

Blanchet and his wife, Antoinette Demers, signed over the ownership of the store to their children, Gaétan and Claudette, in 1970. Claudette's son, Louis Frigault, became the third-generation owner in 2012. 

For Blanchet-Garneau, seeing customers come back to buy one last pair of "Blanchet" shoes has been an opportunity to hear stories about her parents first-hand.

During the store's 80th anniversary in 2016, she was also reminded of how her mother helped build the business. 

The Blanchet family wants to sort through the entire collection and do a proper inventory, before selling any of the items. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

"At the time women weren't recognized as co-owners but she did a marvellous job," said Blanchet-Garneau, who learned how to do the books and hold inventory from her mother.

The story of Chaussures Blanchet is far from over.

"We have one door open, but there are more doors, that aren't open, that we didn't even know existed," said Blanchet-Garneau, not speaking figuratively.

Behind more boxes and shelves, in another section of the brick building, are at least two other doors, hidden until now, that the family will eventually open.

"Are there other things behind those doors? We don't know."

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