The Carter’s Shoes sign on Argyle Street in Port Alberni is flickering back to life, a neon landmark faithfully restored years after the business fixed its last pair of cork boots.
“That sign was the best buy in the world,” said Dennis Parkinson, who retired seven years ago after more than 50 years in the shoe repair business.
In the 1980s, tired of leasing the fixture from Pattison Sign Group, Parkinson bought it from the company for $100. Restored and recently reinstalled, the sign is worth more than $10,000, part of renovations by Urgel Ruel, who bought the property at the corner of Argyle and Second Avenue from Parkinson two years ago.
“That’s one of the big reasons why I bought the building,” Ruel said. “I love vintage stuff.”
Instead of fixing soles and cork boots, the business beneath the sign now dishes up gourmet fare such as Duck Crepe, Pesto Prawn Tagliatelle and Braised Bison Short Rib. Mayor Sharie Minions and her husband Colin opened the Brie and Barrel restaurant last summer. They lease the premises from Ruel, who had the sign restored as part of extensive renovations and upgrades to the building.
Parkinson isn’t the only one glad to see the sign restored. His former customers have been wondering as well.
“We’re all waiting for it to start glowing again,” they tell him.
Ruel plans to illuminate the sign later in January after “bottle-dash” or roughcast stucco, another vintage feature, is reapplied. The material, embedded with broken glass, went out of fashion a half century ago. Finding a supplier wasn’t easy, he said.
“We ended up finding a place in Utah that would sell it to us,” Ruel said.
Roughcast stucco using broken glass became popular in England and Wales in the 1920s and was probably introduced here by tradesmen who immigrated to the West Coast.
Sold as Sparkle Stucco between the late 1930s and 1960s, the material was commonly used as an exterior covering, “dashed” on aging wood-frame buildings to provide insulation, protect aging wood and mask renovations.
Bud and Margaret Carter opened the store in the late 1940s when footwear was made to last using tougher leather and stitching instead of glue.
Shoe repair was a thriving business in Port Alberni with four or five shops in town. Carter’s, the largest, operated twin stores with a second on 10th Avenue.
In addition to retailing and repairing footwear, they specialized in leather cork boots, supplying commissaries at the Franklin and Cameron logging camps, as well as manufacturing knife sheaths used in paper mills.
Parkinson still has store records kept on cardboard, showing how repairs increased during tough economic times. He went to work for Carter’s in 1960 and later apprenticed at the store.
“I started there when I was 12, after school,” he recalled over a cup of coffee. “I used to dye shoes after school for weddings,” earning $1 an hour to start.
Carter was also the captain of the city’s fire department, still comprised of volunteers in those days. Parkinson recalled answering the shoe store phone: “Port Alberni Fire Department. Tell me where the fire is.” Then he’d pull a lever to set off the alarm at the firehall up the hill.
When Carter retired in the mid-1970s, he sold the business to Parkinson for the sum of $60,000, paid monthly and interest-free.
“Old Mr. Carter was good to me,” Parkinson said. “I was like a son to him.”
The business saw Parkinson through to retirement. He was still fixing about 300 pairs a month when he closed Carter’s in 2012. What kept him going for so many years?
“Good customers,” he said. “They were all good to me.”
As Bud Carter told him, “You have to do quality work if you want people to come back.”
“In my lifetime, I’ve probably had 1,000 bosses,” Parkinson added, referring to Carter’s clientele. “They’re your bosses. They’re paying the bills.”
The building was originally a private residence built in the 1920s, Ruel believes.