"In this business," says Howard "Howie" Leveton, the shoe salesman, "you make your money by the volume.
"You know that joke about tires? 'You can sell one for $1,000, or 100 for ten dollars each.' Some guys are lucky. They only have to sell one; other guys have to work."
He sucks on a cigarette as he talks to his companion, and steers his compact Toyota onto Roosevelt Road. He's 35 years old, and president of H. Leveton & Sons, a wholesale company he took over when his father Harry retired. Today he's calling on the merchants who work near the Maxwell Street market on the near south side.
"I don't have any orders today. Maybe I can make some sales, maybe I can't. But that doesn't mean I don't make a visit. I stop in, we schmooze. You know, 'How's the wife? How's the kids?' That sort of thing. And I pick up what's hot on the market. These guys know. They hear it from the kids. It's important that I keep my ear to the ground.
"I mean, sometimes there's no logic to this business. A lot of it's instinct. You know what's the hottest gym shoe on the market today?"
"Fila. Can you believe that? It's made by a European company, who got started in tennis clothes. You know, real North Shore stuff. They make a shoe, and for some reason, in Detroit, it becomes the hottest shoe for black people. Now everyone on the south side has to have it.
"I mean, it makes no sense. I'm talking to this president of a shoe store. And he's telling me about his aerobic shoe. The design, the style, they're both beautiful. He's going on and on about what a great shoe it is. I let him go for ten minutes; I enjoy listening to him. And then I say, 'Your shoes are great, but you don't do any advertising.'
"He says, 'Well, we advertise in the trades.'
"I say, 'No, you need to sign a first-round NBA draft choice, and hope he gets hot.'"
Howie snubs out his cigarette, and pulls to a stop in a small commercial strip.
"We're here," and he tucks in his shirt as he leaves the car. Appearance is important. He wears a fresh-pressed shirt and nice slacks. He doesn't have to wear a suit. But he doesn't want to look like a schlub either.
"Now this guy here," he says, as he approaches a large retail outlet in a small mall, "I've sold him some gym shoes. I've got him some Converse. We've done good business. Who knows? We'll chat. Maybe I got something he needs."
"Yes sir. Can I help you sir? Do you need some shoes?" It's a salesman, short and rotund.
"I'm looking for Bert," Howie replies.
"Who isn't?" the salesman cracks. "You know Bert. The weather gets warm, he leaves early."
"Do you want to leave a message?"
"Not that that's any of my business," the salesman adds.
"Tell Bert that Howie came by."
"Sure, Howie Leveton. Yeah, Howie Leveton. You've been here before. I knew that. I didn't know your name, but I knew your face. I never forget a face."
They pause, standing before a pink leather gym shoe that has a tiny British flag just below the brand name.
"See this shoe," says Howie. "It's the Reebok aerobic. It sold thousands and thousands and thousands."
"Millions," says the salesman.
In silence, they stare.
"A nice shoe, huh?" says Howie. "Looks sporty, comfortable. But they all look sporty, they're all comfortable. And yet, there was a time, every woman on the north side had to have that shoe. But it was a big revolution, they used garment leather. That was a first. Like a big admission. That, yeah, it's a gym shoe, but you're gonna wear it because it looks good with jeans. And you know something, most people that buy it, they never work out. Can you figure that?"
He turns back to the salesman. "Well, just tell Bert I was here."
And he leaves.
"Not a bad guy that salesman. They're all pretty decent. Most of them work on a commission. Now you take the salesmen at Chernin's. They really work their asses off. They'll take three or four customers at a time. And they'll never let you walk out of the store. You say you want a size 11 black dress shoe. Let's say you want a Bally. The salesman comes back and says, 'Well, listen, we don't have your size in a Bally. But try this. It's just as nice.' And, you know, nine times out of ten, you'll buy the shoe. Because, when you think about it, what's the difference?
"It's all business. A real tough business. The retail markup is 50 percent. We call it a keystone markup. That means you double the wholesale price. If I sell it to them for $20, the store sells it to you for $40. At least. You're paying for the salesmen, the insurance, the freight cost, the store stereo, the carpets, the mirrors, everything, the whole bit. Some of these old guys, they tell me, 'Every time my salesman touches the shoe, it costs me 50 cents.'
"Sure, they're going for the keystone plus."
He turns his car off of Roosevelt onto Halsted, a dirty street whose gutters are lined with debris. It's just after noon. The sidewalks bustle with business activity.
"Well, here it is. Maxwell Street. Where it all started. This is where my grandfather started. He ran a scrap leather business."
He pulls his car to the curb. "We're gonna visit a guy who took over from his father, and his father used to do business with my father."
With that he slips into Mike's, a dimly lit store with boxes of shoes cramming the shelves from floor to ceiling.
"Tell Mike," Howie says to, a roly-poly sales-man who runs to greet him, "that Howie's here."
The salesman disappears into the basement and returns a moment later with Mike, a wiry young man with a punkish haircut.
"Hey, Howie, how ya doin' Howie? So what brings you here? As if I don't know," he says, pausing only to bum a cigarette off of Howie.
And they start to talk. Howie telling Mike that he has a good deal on Converse. And Mike telling Howie that he can get them cheaper. Then Howie gets a little indignant because he knows it's not true. And then Mike notices Howie's companion is looking at some display sneakers.
"Yes sir," he says, "you looking for a basketball shoe? What kind of shoe do you want?"
"You don't know. How about this?" he says, pointing to the Cimarron, by Converse.
"Is that the Magic Johnson shoe?"
"You don't want the Magic Johnson shoe," Howie says.
The companion looks confused.
"The Magic Johnson shoe costs more because they have to pay for Johnson's endorsement," says Howie. "You get the Cimarron, and you get a better shoe. Because they can spend more money making the shoe and less on Magic Johnson."
"How much does it cost?"
"That shoe will cost you 60 bucks downtown," says Mike. "But I'll sell it to you for 40, 35, 30, hell, I'll make it 29, because you know Howie."
The companion looks to Howie, who shrugs, as if to say that really is a good deal.
They sit while he laces the shoe.
"So, you play basketball," says Mike. "Where do you play?"
"In Logan Square."
"Oh yeah, well, you tell those guys you play with where you got those shoes. Tell them to come here. Tell them you got a good deal. Just tell them to come to Jew town. They all know where that is."
With that, Howie and his companion walk back out to the street. A slight drizzle has started.
"Well, I think it's time we called on Hand," says Howie. He nods his head. "Yeah, let's go visit Hand."
He seems a little reluctant. Earlier that morning, he had called Hand and asked if he needed shoes.
"He told me not to bother. But you never know. I caught him early in the morning. His phone was ringing. He was really busy. The last thing he needs is a salesman. So I stop by now. It's later in the day and more quiet. He has a few minutes to think. I say, 'Mr. Hand, I happened to be in the neighborhood. I thought I'd drive by.' Maybe I can sell him some work boots.
"I won't sell him gym shoes. I used to, but not anymore. He used to have a store on Devon. But now he's got this big outlet on Division Street. Yeah, he's big now. He's one of the first Koreans to really make it big. He gets his gym shoes straight from the companies. He's got his own line of credit. He doesn't need me.
"Oh yeah, Hand is big, he's phenomenal. He's carrying half the Koreans in town. He sells them a shoe and gets a dollar markup. He gives them the credit that no one else will. He's all over the place; he must make a fortune.
"But, it's funny, he can't get work boots, at least not as cheap as me. I've got a good connection, a Cuban guy in Miami. He gets them from Guatemala. Isn't that something? A boot made in Guatemala, I buy them from a Cuban in Miami to sell to a Korean on Division Street. Only in America."
He parks his car, hops out, and slips through a side door, where, in the rear business room, sits Hand, a lanky man with jet black hair. He smiles, barely, as Howie enters the room.
"Hello, Mr. Hand, Howie Leveton. I'm in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd drop in."
"The wife, the kids, everything OK?"
Hand nods again. He fidgets and looks away, while Howie struggles with small talk about a mutual acquaintance who does business somewhere in Wisconsin.
"So, have you seen him lately?" Howie asks about the acquaintance.
Hand ignores the questions, turning, instead, to address in Korean a secretary who sits nearby.
"Well, anyway," says Howie, rising to leave, "if you need some work boots, just let me know."
Hand stops talking to the secretary. "What do you got?"
"Steel toe, high tops, sturdy. At a good price."
"Well, you're lucky. I think I might have some in the car." Howie slips out the door, and the only sound in the room comes from a salesman, speaking over the phone in heavily accented English.
"Henny, listen to me," says the salesman, "Please, Henny. I like you. I'm not going to buy directly. OK, I buy from you. OK, Henny. Trust me, please, OK."
A few seconds later, Howie returns, holding a red nylon bag.
"Well, here they are," says Howie, as he dumps the shoes on the floor. Hand picks one up, strokes the leather, squeezes the steel toe, and then tosses it to another man, who sits behind a desk tabulating figures on a calculator. They speak to each other in Korean. Howie, his legs crossed, sits on the floor and says nothing.
"How much do you say it is?" Hand asks.
"$15.50 a shoe, if you only buy a few cases. If you order 12 pairs a size, then it's $14.50 a shoe. That way I make a buck and a half a shoe."
Hand turns to his associate. They talk some more in Korean. Suddenly, Hand glares at Howie. "$13.50," he snaps.
Howie sighs. He looks tired, almost sad.
"No, I can't do that," he says. And he starts slowly packing the shoes into the bag.
"OK," says Hand. "$14.50."
Howie smiles. Hand agrees to buy more than 200 pairs. And Howie fills out an order form.
"I'll have my man send you those shoes within a week," Howie says. Hand grunts. They exchange a quick handshake, and then Howie is out the door.
Outside, the rain has stopped and the sun is shining.
"It's something, huh? You got these black kids paying 50 bucks for a gym shoe, and in the back room the Jew and the Korean are haggling over nickel-and-dime work boots. But those nickels and those dimes add up. I made my expenses today. I didn't expect that. It could have been worse.
"Now Hand will sell those shoes for a buck or two markup to the Korean merchants on the south side. Or he'll dump them at a flea market. He'll get his markup.
"He won't make a lot of money, unless he sells a lot of the shoes. But that's the way it is. Remember those tires. You can sell one for a thousand bucks, or 100 for ten dollars each. Either way it's the same amount of money. It's a tough way to make a living."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.