Vickroy: ‘Shoe Man’ a walking history book
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy April 3, 2013 8:18PM
Tony Caprio at his shop, Caprio's Shoes, in Chicago, Illinois, Tuesday, April 2, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 5, 2013 6:07AM
Walk a mile in Tony Caprio’s shoes and you’ll get a lesson in the history of Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Caprio walks down memory lane with the clarity of hindsight and the steadiness that only a pair of Drew orthopedics can provide.
He turns 90 in June but is as sharp as the day nearly 71 years ago when he began selling shoes along 63rd Street. He’s spent 43 of those years on the corner of 63rd Street and Pulaski Avenue, in the shadow of the giant Indian statue.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my lifetime,” Caprio says.
He’s been around long enough to watch bustling neighborhoods and majestic retail centers fall to urban decay, and then rise from the ashes to assume a new purpose.
He saw the area go from being solid Republican to ardent Democrat.
He’s watched pockets of ethnic groups struggle at the bottom of the social hierarchy only to be boosted up the ladder by an even newer immigrant group.
And he’s watched his clientele for orthopedic shoes go from young polio sufferers to customers with arthritis, gout, autism and diabetes.
He takes it all in stride — the kind of meticulous, patient stride you need if you’re going to tend to people from all walks of life.
For a kid who grew up so poor he used cardboard to reinforce his street-worn shoes, this guy they call “The Shoe Man” often stops to marvel that he’s spent decades surrounded by pricey Florsheims, high quality Bates Floataways and seemingly ageless Jumping Jacks.
“All of these shoes cost at least $100,” he said, pointing to the stacks of shoeboxes that stretch from floor to ceiling, from entry door to cash register counter.
That is the price of mobility in a society that is aging and afflicted with all manner of foot problem.
Over the years, he’s serviced his share of celebrities, including Enrico Fermi, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and Pat O’Brien.
“Mike Madigan sat in that chair right there,” he said. “Size 8D Florsheim wing tips.”
But mostly he tends to the average person, the working stiff who spends countless hours on his feet, who needs extra comfort and support.
Those are the people he relates to best, perhaps because he’s been where they are.
He was 14 when his dad lost his construction job and the family was evicted from their home on West 42nd Street.
“My dad made some mistakes. He sent too much money back to relatives in Europe and he spent too much money fixing up our house,” he said. “When he lost his job, we couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
So they moved farther south, to 29th and Wentworth, to a home right next door to Frank Barbaric.
Caprio and Barbaric became fast friends and have stayed that way for 75 years. They still chuckle about how they had to walk everywhere in those days, wearing ripped up, beaten down shoes. The irony that Caprio became a shoe salesman and Barbaric a podiatrist is not lost on them.
“We didn’t have any money back then, but we didn’t know any different,” Barbaric said.
Looking back, he adds, “We were pretty lucky to come out of bad times without ever getting into trouble.”
Barbaric credits Caprio’s leadership skills for that. “He was always telling us guys not to smoke or drink or gamble. He always said we needed to keep busy, to always find something to do,” Barbaric said.
They were students at Wilson Junior College in 1942 when they spied a notice for a shoe salesman position at a shop on 63rd Street. Caprio applied and got the job.
“I started at the bottom, as a stock boy,” Caprio said. He worked his way up the ladder and eventually bought that shop and then later opened Caprio’s Shoes in its current location.
He met his wife, Mary, while stocking shoes. She’d taken the day off work to go shopping with a friend. They ventured into the shoe store and Caprio was smitten. They’ve been married for 56 years.
“I remember back during the (second world) war, our top shoe cost $5.99,” he said. “You were only allowed three pairs of shoes a year because of government rations.”
Shoe sellers, he said, had to match sales figures with government stamps, “or you could go to jail.”
There were greater challenges to come. The 1950s brought a frightening, debilitating disease outbreak.
“You were afraid to get a cold in July or August because that could end up being polio,” he said. He began outfitting victims with special shoes designed to aid with balance and support. Some of the polio sufferers he’s serviced, now in their 80s, still come back to visit.
In the ’60s, Caprio began looking for investment opportunities. Once you’ve been poor, he said, you never feel like you have enough money.
He turned his attention first to Tinley Park, where he bought a huge parcel of land hoping to build a 10-flat. When the village denied the permit in what he calls an ethnic battle between an Italian investor and mostly German townsfolk, he sold it and bought some four-flats. He still laughs about the day he tried to buy a new sump pump at a local hardware store.
“The guy told me to go back to the city and buy it there,” Caprio said.
Later, Caprio headed to Frankfort, where he bought a farm, which he still maintains today.
“I grow soybeans and corn and grapes,” he said.
Life is full of challenges, he said.
“In order to survive, you’ve got to diversify and adapt,” he said. “Adapt to the changes around you and to the changes in your customer base.”
And, never underestimate people’s desire to be mobile, he said.
Until he was 80, he rollerskated every day, first at the Armory and later he became a regular at the Tinley Park Roller Rink.
So when a customer comes in with foot maladies, he listens carefully.
“You can’t make a mistake, this is important,” he said. He’s had shoes made with different size wedges for customers who had one leg longer than the other. He’s ordered shoes that open on the inside of the foot to accommodate a customer with braces.
A sturdy, well-supported shoe can make all the difference in the world for people with arthritis or balance issues, he said.
He can even accommodate Triple E widths, which he said are not that uncommon anymore.
“I can actually get them wider,” he said.
Despite his expertise, he said, he ends every customer challenge giving himself the sign of the cross.
Caprio also owns land in Michigan but, he says, his heart is always in Chicago. He continues to live in the same Chicago Lawn neighborhood he moved into more than 50 years ago.
“I love Chicago,” he said. “I love the South Side. I could never leave.”
He’s fortunate he doesn’t have to. Many of his competitors went out of business years ago.
“For me to have been paid all these years to do something that I love, well, it’s terrific,” he said.