In the storefront of Highland Shoe Repair, the head of a large valkyrie made out of plaster and sporting a horned helmet and shield sits behind the glass, her mouth agape.
“The fat lady is singing!” a sign reads in the window. “September 10 — Final Day to accept Repairs. October 15 — All repairs MUST be reclaimed.”
It’s the last time Bob Ferguson will dress up his mannequin, the subject of window displays that have been a cherished quirk of the Highland Square neighborhood for the past 28 years. He’s closing up shop on Oct. 15 and retiring.
Ferguson didn’t originally set out to repair shoes. He was employed as a seasonal worker at the Chapel Hill Mall Sears in 1989 when he passed by a sign in a mall shop window advertising full- time work in a shoe repair shop — what he called a “rarity” at the time. After a few months, he realized he had a knack for it.
“I liked not having to sell something to someone that they didn’t necessarily need or want,” he said. “I found that oftentimes, there’s usually enough with what people already had.”
He became a manager for Shoe Fixers, a company that no longer exists, working in three mall locations in the Akron area before opening his own shop in 1993: a small storefront nestled next to the Highland Square Theater.
A year later, on his drive to Highland Square from his Ellet residence, he noticed a mannequin in an antique shop window several mornings in a row.
“I figured if she was catching my attention that often, I couldn’t be the only one,” he said.
So, he purchased the mannequin and put it in his storefront as a means to attract customers — a tactic far cheaper than taking out an advertisement. Ferguson began dressing up the mannequin to reference politics, topical issues and movies playing at the Highland Theater next door using his own craftiness and cheap finds from Village Thrift.
“It became something bigger than I ever even intended,” he said. “I didn’t realize people would love it so much.”
His favorite displays were always the ones that offered political commentary. When he was a child, he dreamed of a career as an editorial cartoonist. The displays, he said, were a good way to exercise those critical and artistic skills from his youth.
But not everyone was a fan of those opinions. One display, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale” featuring a bright red cloak and a wire hanger in the shape of a Republican elephant, was exhibited in 2019 when Georgia was passing restrictive abortion laws. The shop was vandalized with graffiti condemning his stance.
But Ferguson said he was never too bothered by his opposition. A splash of green paint stained the sidewalk in front of the shop after the graffiti was gone, so he took out his own brush and painted a MAGA hat on the splat and a shoeprint, making it look like he was squashing a Trump-supporting bug.
On another occasion, he dressed his mannequin in a Statue of Liberty costume with a paper bag over her head to represent the shame he felt about the direction of the country following President Donald Trump’s strict travel ban for many Middle Eastern countries in 2017, eliciting hatred and arson threats from people in the area.
But in true Highland Square fashion, Akron City Councilmember Rich Swirsky, who passed away earlier this year, organized a rally to support Ferguson and freedom of speech. Supporters gathered outside the shop, holding shoes in the air and passing around drinks and pastries from nearby Angel Falls Coffee Company.“That’s the sort of thing I’ll miss,” Ferguson said. “This is a really supportive, tight community.”
Some of his other favorite, less controversial displays included memorials to legendary musicians such as David Bowie, or really any of the ones that coincided with major movie releases at the Highland Square Theater.
Movies were a huge appeal to Ferguson as an avid pop culture fan. His small shop is cluttered with not just shoe repair tools, but remnants of old window displays: from a Doctor Who TARDIS to a makeshift sea monster costume from a former Kong vs. Godzilla display. The wall is lined with autographed photos of famous people he’s met, from Jamie Lee Curtis to Barbara Eden.
Despite his catchy window, business had dulled in recent years. His decision to close was threefold: “shoes are manufactured to be disposable nowadays,” his supply chain was no longer local and relied on out-of-state suppliers that became increasingly difficult to navigate and “there’s no longer much of a need to maintain dress shoes” with work from home options.
But he’s looking forward to retirement. He has an affinity for gardening, planting and harvesting grapes to make wine and jams. He also plans on focusing on his drawing and sculpting. He’s determined to learn how to play the ukulele “no matter how much my wife might not like it.”
“It’s kind of exciting not knowing what’s next,” he said. “I look forward to sitting in my adirondack chair around a fire pit without having to worry about work.”
As for the mannequin, she will come home with him and maybe “I’ll rest a hat on her,” he said.
“Honestly,” he said, “some may miss me more for my window displays than anything else.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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