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
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