Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 05/4/2013 3:16 AM | Comments: 0
Leonard Harris, 89, still drives to work downtown from his North End home three times a week. He turns 90 in October and figures he may be Canada's oldest shoe salesman.
He started working at Canadian Footwear when he was 73. Back then, he was a full-time employee. When he asked co-owner Brian Scharfstein for a job, he was told to come in on Saturdays and act as a greeter.
"They wanted me to put on a suit and be like one of those people at Walmart," Harris snorts. "I did it for two Saturdays and then said, 'Brian, I want a real job.' "
He was made a full-time "fitting specialist," working five days a week.
He cut back his hours in recent years, a reluctant concession to his age. His three adult children and some of his friends have asked why he doesn't just retire.
"I have no hobbies. I don't play bridge. I don't golf. I don't curl. And the dollars don't hurt, either."
He makes a little more than $13 an hour plus a two per cent commission if he hits a sales target. He says he averages about $1,000 a day in sales, down from his one-time average of $1,500 to $2,000. A much younger co-worker laughs that Harris's sales put his own to shame.
Harris feels at home at the shoe store, where he kibitzes with his co-workers and customers.
"I like the work. I like the people here. I think they like me. They haven't asked me to stop coming around."
He and his wife, Diane, recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.
He's been blessed with relatively good health. His vision is fine and his mind strong. Sixteen years ago, he had a quadruple bypass. About six years ago, he had surgery for a stomach aneurysm. Spondylosis in his spine causes him to hunch over when he walks. The slightly built octogenarian looks like a question mark as he shuffles through the store.
He has a bit of trouble with his breathing, he says. That slows him down. He goes to the Reh-Fit Centre three days a week, working the track with his walker.
Scharfstein calls Harris "an integral part of our business. He brings a lot of life."
Customers have mixed reactions to the elderly salesman, says the boss.
"We have those people who think he's the greatest, that it's wonderful he's still active and out," says Scharfstein. "There are people who will only come in when he's here. They want to help him carry boxes."
Not everyone's a fan.
"I've had really nasty phone calls and emails saying my wife and I are just awful that we make this poor old man work. We're not making him do anything! He loves being here."
Scharfstein recently had to tell Harris he can no longer work Saturdays.
"It's crazy-busy. Our staff keeps an eye on Leonard and they can't do that when we're so busy. We didn't want him up a ladder without anyone watching him."
The senior now uses the building elevator instead of taking the stairs to find the shoes customers request. His is a physical job in many ways. He bends over to measure a foot properly and then walks the store's various floors and backrooms to locate stock.
It's hard not to offer to give him a hand. Customers often do. "I tell them it's OK. It's my job. It's not their job."
Harris says he regrets his lack of formal education. "I didn't go to university. I remember in Grade 9 telling my mother I was done. I left for the big job that paid 10 cents an hour." He laughs.
Harris wasn't always a shoe salesman. He worked 50 years at Big 4 Sales and Stylerite. He began as a clerk and worked his way up to buyer. When owners Reuben Cristall and Max Gladstone sold the business, they negotiated a five-year, well-paying contract.
The new owner went bankrupt. Harris was in his 60s, but not ready to retire. He tried his hand in business, running a small North End department store. He kept busy and finally approached Scharfstein, who he'd known for years. A new career was born.
"I don't have any secrets," says Harris. "I like to work. I always have. I think we all want to feel useful."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A10
Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories? Please use the form below and let us know.
Having problems with the form?Contact Us Directly
Bowman has chance to take city forward
Heartwarming pooch play at school
Income splitting reduces tax burden
Wife's sexy Halloween costume scaring husband
Games should remind us of what Canada is all about
Bowman was able to grow
Still need public face on public space
Out with old and in with new
The day it all changed
Confusing Constantine pilot has potential, but cast change means preview pointless
From the Middle East to Mexico
Granddaughter's news rocks family foundation
Civic election: then and now
Step in right direction
It's much scarier than Halloween
Griddle me this
Stop denying, start adapting to global-warming disasters
Ruptured relationship needs redefined rules
Poll could be bad for Bowman
Reader shares positive story about city police officers
It's show-and-sell time for Bomber QBs
When the dogs look away, make your play
Jets better than they look
Bombers don't stand a chance
Only two more sleeps till election day
Burial plot thickens after second marriage
Experts from across North America gather in city for professional conference on diabetes
A search for the visionary mayor
Local pianist flying south to heed Caribbean's call
More questions needed when setting up friends
Same old losing stench
A city built for people
Farmers face dilemma in buying CWB
Raise a glass to yourselves, sports fans
Chief misses chance to send strong message
Cap'n Doug delivers arrr weekend weather
Wakey-wakey, sleeping Jets
Trending that caught Doug's eye: Memorable quitters
Fans use the Force in sci-fi remake
Partner's consistent 'wah, wah, wah' a major flaw