After 66 years as a fixture on Center Ridge Road with its distinctive angular sign, Szabo Shoes is closing at the end of October.
Owner Ulric Szabo decided to close the business founded by his family 99 years ago based on trends pointing to online shopping growing and brick-and-mortar stores shrinking. In a recent interview in the store, where shelves are emptying, Szabo said he knew at the beginning of this year that he would soon close shop.
Szabo’s will be the second long-time independent shoe store on the West Side to close since last year. At the end of 2018, Cerny Shoes on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood closed when its owners, Don and Marlene Cerny, retired. The store had been a fixture on the West and East sides since 1903. It was the last remaining store of Zak Brothers Shoes, once an 11-store chain.
“I grew up in this business,” said Szabo, 44, who started working at his family’s store at age 11. “It’s definitely not an easy thing to do, closing shop.”
Szabo’s found its niche with hard-to-find shoe sizes and in “wellness” shoes for those with mobility and foot issues. Many customers have been shopping there for five decades or more.
Szabo said he is considering leasing the space, possibly for a “casual style” restaurant.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Szabo took stock of the racks and tables of shoes. The sound of his 11-month-old son, Gilbert, fussy in his nearby stroller, filled the air instead of the normal strains of Frank Sinatra or the Zac Brown Band. Dressed in athletic shorts and a graphic T-shirt, Szabo watched a handful of customers walk past the orange walls lined with partially stocked shelves.
North Olmsted resident Szabo, the fourth generation of his family to own and operate the business, paused and glanced around again. One employee stocked what’s left of the socks on their racks, while the other looked for the right shoe size for a patiently waiting customer of more than 50 years.
Szabo Shoes opened in 1920 when Ulric’s great-grandfather immigrated to Northeast Ohio from Hungary to escape post-World War I hardships. Finding Cleveland’s weather similar to Hungary’s and a small population of Hungarians already here, he felt comfortable enough to open a shoe repair shop on Detroit Avenue and West 117th Street, his profession before leaving home.
In 1953, Ulric Szabo’s great-uncle Doc Szabo moved the store to a sparsely populated spot on Center Ridge Road. Across the street, now the site of the Shops at Westgate, there was a drive-in movie theater. Szabo Shoes displaced a tomato farm. Nearby, The Rustic restaurant was already in business.
The spot was logical: Retail and commercial establishments at the time were concentrated along Detroit and Center Ridge roads. The city was transitioning from rural farmland to residential. Its population in 1950 was 11,237 and growing.
When Doc Szabo passed in 2000, Ulric took over operations.
While Szabo has accepted the store’s closing, the community of Rocky River is just getting used to it.
“My mother got her shoes exclusively from Szabo’s,” Maggie Templar said in a Facebook post. “She had a miserably complicated size shoe and Szabo’s was the only place that was able to get her size. … It’s hard to think of them not being there anymore.”
Customers in the store also were wistful. “I will miss this store,” Joan Ford said as she browsed the store’s dwindling selection. “I’ve been coming here for 50 years and had my shoes dyed for prom at Magnificat here.”
Szabo said he will miss running the store and will always be grateful for the customers and employees who came through its doors every day throughout the years. Without them, he said, his family wouldn’t have survived.
In anticipation of the October closing, all socks and shoes already are 50% off and some select shoes are an additional 25% off.
“It’s good to go out on top,” Szabo said. “It’s like those boxers that were great at one time and stay in the sport too long. I feel like it’s sad to see some of those athletes’ legacies get tarnished. It’s better to go out on your own terms.”
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