Northeast Times

Sole central

— With pa­ro­chi­al schools set to open today and pub­lic schools on Fri­day, there's no busi­ness like shoe busi­ness. Just ask the folks at a 60-year-old North­east Philly in­sti­tu­tion, Phil's Shoes.

Phil’s Shoe Store own­er Tony Di­Gi­ulio (right) helps Martha Kil­lian (second from the left) and her two daugh­ters, Meredith (left), 12, and Car­oline Kil­lian (front), 6, find back-to-school shoes. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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For 60 years, a trip to Phil’s Shoes for a pair of leath­er shoes has been a rite of pas­sage for stu­dents in North­east Phil­adelphia head­ing back to school.

This end-of-sum­mer tra­di­tion has af­forded the folks at Phil’s an up-close view of changes in school rules and fam­ily re­la­tions as well as the shoe busi­ness over the years.

Take the sum­mer shoe policy, for in­stance. As schools re­open this week, some pa­ro­chi­al and charter school stu­dents will en­joy a tem­por­ary re­prieve from wear­ing shoes that com­ply with school uni­forms. In­stead, Septem­ber “dress down days” al­low open-toes shoes and san­dals.

Phil’s Shoes, a busi­ness that has been in the Di­Gi­ulio fam­ily for six dec­ades, is cur­rently owned by broth­ers Tony and Don Di­Gi­ulio. Tony talked re­cently about the re­laxed shoe policy as one of the changes he’s seen.

“It’s changed. It’s dif­fer­ent. We coun­ted nine­teen schools where stu­dents don’t need to wear [uni­form] shoes un­til after Oct. 1,” he said.

Phil’s stor­ied his­tory in the North­east starts in the early 1950s, when the large Di­Gi­ulio fam­ily lived above a va­cant store­front at 998 An­chor St. in Ox­ford Circle.

Phil Di­Gi­ulio was friendly with Monsignor Wal­ter A. Bower, pas­tor at St. Mar­tin of Tours Cath­ol­ic Church, which was dir­ectly across the street. Back then, St. Mar­tin’s was selling shoes and uni­forms out of its aud­it­or­i­um/gym­nas­i­um.

Bower, though, wanted to free up that space for stu­dent lunches and bas­ket­ball prac­tices and games. The pas­tor asked Di­Gi­ulio if he would sell the shoes out of the store­front.

Even­tu­ally, Di­Gi­ulio opened a busi­ness of his own, op­er­at­ing four store­fronts along Lor­etto Av­en­ue. There was a wo­men’s store at Chel­ten­ham Av­en­ue that later re­lo­cated to Sanger Street. The men’s store was at Carv­er Street. The chil­dren’s store, at An­chor Street, was al­ways bust­ling.

“In those days, every fam­ily had six or sev­en kids,” Tony Di­Gi­ulio said.

Busi­ness was so good that in 1976 Phil’s ex­pan­ded to a lar­ger loc­a­tion at 7332 El­gin Ave. in Rhawn­hurst.

By the mid-1990s, though, faced with a fire and a chan­ging Ox­ford Circle neigh­bor­hood, which res­ul­ted in few­er Cath­ol­ic school chil­dren, the last of the Lor­etto Av­en­ue stores closed.

But the El­gin Av­en­ue loc­a­tion, near Castor and Cottman av­en­ues, is thriv­ing.

“We’re do­ing pretty good, but we’re still not do­ing the fig­ures we used to,” Tony said.

The eco­nomy con­tin­ues to struggle, and Phil’s isn’t im­mune. There’s no need to buy work boots if people aren’t work­ing.

“A wo­man who used to buy two or three pairs of shoes now buys one or two,” Tony said. “Con­tract­ors are not work­ing like they used to.”

Phil’s sells shoes for about 60 schools, with par­ents of stu­dents at St. Mar­tin’s, Re­sur­rec­tion of Our Lord, St. Mat­thew, St. Cecil­ia, Ma­ter­nity BVM, Naz­areth Academy, Little Flower, St. Hubert and John W. Hal­la­han among the most loy­al cus­tom­ers. Nuns and priests al­ways have got­ten dis­counts.

The store does well dur­ing con­firm­a­tion and Holy Com­mu­nion sea­sons, but oth­er­wise people are be­com­ing a bit more cas­u­al.

“East­er used to be gi­gant­ic,” Tony said. “Hardly any­body gets dressed up for East­er any­more.”

Tony said the shoes have changed some over the years. There was a time when most shoes were Amer­ic­an made and came with qual­ity leath­er soles. Now, many shoes are made in China and come with com­fort­able soles that are made of a com­pos­ite of ma­ter­i­als.

The long­time busi­ness­man also sees that par­ents, who once dic­tated to their chil­dren which shoes they would wear, are now giv­ing the young­sters a great­er say in choos­ing the styles.

The philo­sophy at Phil’s hasn’t changed: It’s qual­ity over quant­ity. Its mis­sion state­ment reads, “In good times or bad, one pair of well-fit­ting bet­ter-qual­ity shoes is al­ways the best choice over two or three pairs of lower qual­ity, poorly con­struc­ted foot­wear.”

In ad­di­tion to qual­ity shoes, the store prides it­self on “caring, per­son­al ser­vice” that sells cus­tom­ers well-fit­ting foot­wear.

The staff at Phil’s is a mix of young salespeople and “main­stays” such as Jimmy Ush­er and Kev­in Quinn, who have big re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.

Ush­er star­ted with the com­pany 32 years ago. He’d just gradu­ated from Fath­er Judge High School and was be­gin­ning stud­ies at La Salle Col­lege. He stocked shelves for six months be­fore be­com­ing a sales­man and even­tu­ally a man­ager.

While Cath­ol­ic school en­roll­ment is down, the store has been able to off­set the loss of sales to that pop­u­la­tion due to the uni­form policies at the ever-ex­pand­ing charter schools, he said.

Ush­er said long­time cus­tom­ers ap­pre­ci­ate the ser­vice they re­ceive, start­ing with the im­port­ant job of find­ing a shoe that fits well.

“They wouldn’t want to come in here and see it turned in­to a self-serve store,” he said.

Quinn has spent 26 years at Phil’s, much of it in the stock­ing, ship­ping and re­ceiv­ing end of the busi­ness, though he also has ex­per­i­ence in sales.

In Quinn’s view, a trip to Phil’s is bet­ter than shop­ping at a de­part­ment store.

“It seems like they have a mil­lion people work­ing there, but nobody is avail­able to help,” he said of the large stores. “Here, when you come in, it’s all based on cus­tom­er ser­vice.”

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You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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