Historic shoe store celebrates 90 years in Brandon

Purchased in 1929 by immigrant cobblers, the Union Shoe Store has become a rare entity in today’s corporate marketplace; a multi-generational retail store anchored to where it began.

Third-generation Union Shoe Store owner Bob Pappas says the business has figuratively ran in his blood from the time he was a youth growing up in Brandon.

Bob took over the downtown retail shoe outlet from his father in 1987, nearly three decades after his father, Constantine Pappas, assumed the reins from his father-in-law and one of the two original store founders, Alexander Mehos. Although he also runs another family enterprise, Bob said tradition played an instrumental role in his decision to maintain the shoe store.

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Ninety years after its take over, the services provided at the business may have changed slightly, but its core values remain; hard work and consistent service keep customers coming back.

“I grew up in this business being a shoeshine boy from the age of 10 down at the old location,” Pappas said during a conversation in the Union Shoe Store’s showroom.

“For any business to go past two generations is pretty rare. Most businesses don’t go past two generations and now we’re at three. It’s (success comes from) just being consistent. We’re here all the time. The community and the area sees familiar faces in our store and I think that’s what does it.”

To celebrate the Union Shoe Store’s 90th anniversary, the Pappas are doing something that is also somewhat of a tradition in the family; giving back to the community that has allowed them to flourish.

“Because the community has been so loyal to us for 90 years, we feel like we want to do something to give back to the community. We’ve earmarked the month of April and the month of October to do some fundraising. We have not solidified the charities that we’re going to send funds to, but it will definitely be something local and downtown that has been a part of us,” said Angela, adding that two dollars from every purchased pair of shoes will be contributed to the fund.

“When Bob’s father passed away four and a half years ago, in lieu of flowers, he wanted donations made to help people, so a lot of people donated to Helping Hands, Samaritan House or similar organizations.”

Currently located at 618 Rosser Avenue in downtown Brandon, the business has never strayed far from its local roots. Union Shoe and Hat Works was purchased in 1929 by Alexander and George Mehos, Greek immigrant cobblers who arrived in Brandon and set up shop at 924 Rosser Avenue beside Mutters Grocery Store. Back then, the business offered custom-made shoes, repairs and shoeshine services alongside hat blocking and cleaning.

Although he was trained as a bookkeeper, Alexander’s son-in-law Constantine Pappas arrived in 1952 and learned the business before taking over in 1958. During his ownership, Pappas Senior added shoe sales to the operation as the need for custom-made products declined. Constantine would sponsor nieces and nephews to come to Canada and work for him. One of them – William Karavas – stayed for decades, focused on the repair aspect of the store’s operation.

In 1973, Constantine moved Union Shoes to its current location in an effort to expand as a retailer. The shoe repair service room followed two years later.

Karavas was still there when Bob took over in the late 1980s. His death in 2007 almost ended the story of this long-standing Brandon institution.

“After he died, Bob was overseeing the shoe store, the shoe repair and we have another family business that he oversees,” said Angela Pappas, Bob’s wife and co-owner of Union Shoes.

“It was just getting too much, so we had thought of possibly selling out the shoe store part of it, but Bob’s heart wasn’t in that. We had to make some decisions. I had worked for Sobeys and IGA for 26 years and I was the front-end manager at that time, so I gave up my job to come here. Now, I oversee the shoe store and he just focuses on the other family business.”

Karavas was heavily involved in shoe repair service. Today, Garth Epp handles that area as a separate business from space. Union Shoes is also involved in custom fit orthotics and footwear for people requiring specialized features.

“This is just something we got used to, I think,” Bob said. “If my family had got involved in another business, I would have liked that just as much. It’s just our business was in footwear and we grew into it, just like you learn how to speak a language; you learn by doing. Sticking with the business, it becomes part of you.”

For more information about the history, services and products at Union Shoe Store, visit their website at unionshoes.ca.

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