— 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.
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.”