From generation to generation, the Sephardic Shemaria family lived the American dream by carving a legendary spot in the history of Atlanta retailing and the evolution of functional family dynamics.
Along the arc of brick-and-mortar stores foraging their way in customer acquisition, through COVID lockdown and E-commerce competition, after 114 years, Bennie’s Shoes will close at the end of September.
Bennie Shemaria came to the U.S. in 1909 from the Isle of Rhodes. In 1912, he opened his own shoe repair store. He had three sons: Jack, Hymie, and Louie. When the boys were older, they all had their own shoe repair shops. In 1970, a friend’s connection put Louie in touch with Johnston & Murphy Shoe Company. Louie flew to Nashville to meet with them and bought 375 pairs of discontinued factory reject shoes. Once Louie started selling shoes, he invited Jack and Hymie to join him. Jack and Hymie subsequently sold their repair shops and joined Louie at Broadview Plaza off Piedmont. In well-oiled family efficiency, Jack operated the register, Hymie handled repair, Louie ran sales and building the business, which methodically created a solid retail niche.
Louie’s strategy was to assure well stocked, hard-to-find sizes for the wide swath of customers who needed big shoes, wide or narrow widths. Athletes, politicians, lawyers, the working man, the country club set, and a racially diverse customer base made Bennie’s one of the top men’s stores in the South. High profilers from Clark Howard to mayors touted the service and bargains at Bennie’s.
Louie said, “By 1990, we were well known and firmly established. Not just in Atlanta, but in the shoe industry as well. CEOs, judges, corporate executives were all shopping at Bennie’s. The main store in Buckhead had 20 sales associates. Bennie’s was the largest independent shoe store in the Southeast.”
Logistics shuffled as Atlanta grew outward. Mark (Jack’s son) managed a new store in Smyrna. In 1984, a third store opened in Norcross, followed by Roswell. In 1989, Louie’s son, Brian, managed the Smyrna store and Mark moved to the Buckhead store. At this point, the Roswell store had closed, and the Smyrna store moved to Kennesaw.
In 2003, the store in Buckhead at Lindbergh Plaza had to move across the street since the Broadview Plaza was rebuilt. A few years later, the Kennesaw store closed followed by the Norcross store. In 2010, Louie and Hymie decided to retire, and Brian became half-owner with cousin, Mark. Louie’s daughter, Stephanie Rosenberg, served as office manager.
Louie continued, “As time went on, the older customers had unfortunately passed away, and the younger generation was going online to purchase shoes. Things changed once the Atlanta Summer Olympics came and went. Atlanta was now an international city and retailers like Nordstrom, DSW filed in. By the end of the 1990s, the Internet started selling shoes online. Companies like Zappos and Amazon took another bite.”
Most of the shoe companies had their own web-based stores with prices that were less than Bennie’s offerings. The shoe companies cut out the middleman and were going direct to the customer. Once the pandemic hit, things continued to tumble.
Louie recalled, “Most, if not all the shoes made in the world, come from overseas. Shoe manufacturers had no stock and getting shoes was extremely tough. Not to mention that people were staying at home.”
Louie is 89, Hymie is 91, and Jack passed away eight years ago at 93. Mark is 68 and will be retiring. Brian is employed at Piedmont National.
Giving up the lease, ever gracious, Louie exclaimed, “Thank you, Atlanta, for your long-time support. I love this city!”
On a personal note, this AJT writer had the privilege of handling Bennie’s newspaper advertising for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for more than a decade. Louie always had a warm smile and (clean) joke to share. On the rare times that the ad didn’t appear on the ‘top right position’, this writer would get a call first thing Monday morning and head out the door to curry favor with fresh bagels. They were always amazing businesspeople who greeted customers by name and retained loyal staff. Shalom to the loss of this century-old institution.