It's the end of an era as a New Westminster business landmark prepares to close its doors.
After a century in business on Columbia Street, Copp's Shoes is aiming to close at the end of the year. Copp's New West Shoes is among the oldest shoe stores in Canada.
"We are probably the oldest shoe store in British Columbia," said owner Terry Brine. "No doubt about that."
Brine's decision to retire and close Copp's Shoes has given him some sleepless nights.
"It's been 87 years in the family," he said. "It's not easy to be the one to pull the plug. You have to do what is right for you."
Brine said he's very appreciative of all of his customers, particularly those from New Westminster who have supported the store and the Copps-Brine family for generations. Popular Shoes opened at 638 Columbia St. in 1912.
In 1925, Percy Copp, Brine's maternal grandfather, purchased the store and renamed it Copp's Shoes. In subsequent years his son Ralph Brine (who retired in 1975), and then Ralph's son Terry would oversee the shop.
Although Brine planned to teach physical education when he graduated from university, the idea of working in retail and an interest in business led him to the family business 42 years ago.
"It was vibrant, lot of retail," he recalled of his early days on Columbia Street. "There would have been four shoe stores. There would have been three or four women's clothing stores and three or four men's shops."
In those days, Army & Navy was located in the Trapp Block. Eaton's department store was located in the building now home to Army & Navy.
"There was really nothing over the river as far as retail," Brine said. "It was pre-Guildford. It was destination shopping."
The nature of service offered in shoe stores has also changed through the decades. In past eras, people would come into a shop, sit down, have their feet measured, tell the salesperson the type of shoe they wanted, and try on shoes selected by the salesperson that met that description.
"Now it is so much price oriented," Brine said. "They are so used to shopping at Costco and Wal-Mart. It's about price. Service is something lost."
While self-service shoe stores may do a brisk business, Copp's Shoes has continued to focus on personalized customer service.
"Malls have always been cookie cutter," Brine said, noting some have different names but the same ownership. "We have been able to survive by finding niches."
Copp's New West Shoes has specialized in carrying products that aren't easily available in other locations, including wider widths and men's shoes in sizes 15, 16 and 17.
"They are great customers," he said of people with larger-than-average feet. "They don't buy one or two - they buy three or four or five."
Western boots and work boots, as well as "comfort shoes" have historically been big sellers at Copp's. The shop has also carried shoes that work well with orthodics, so staff has seen a variety of feet during their time.
"Oh boy - there are lots of different feet out there," Brine smiled.
Copp's currently has three employees, a few less than it had on staff during the heyday of Columbia Street.
"Back to school time, every chair would be full," Brine said. "People would be lined up to get in. It was unbelievable."
Employees of Copp's New West Shoes are trained in fitting, as well as construction of shoes.
"We have had some great employees over the years," Brine noted. "We were very fortunate. That's what makes your business - dedicated employees. It makes your life much easier."
While some businesses may move locations, Copp's Shoes has always called the space at 638 Columbia St. home. The interior has gone relatively unchanged through the years.
"It hasn't been changed since Day 1," Brine said. "There really hasn't been a lot done. We kept it intentionally."
Both sides of the store are adorned with counters topped by shelves filled with walls of shoes. Sliding ladders have allowed generations of employees to climb up and retrieve shoes stacked up to the top of the 18-foot ceilings.
"If you are afraid of heights, it wasn't a good thing," Brine laughed. "We used to have shoes right to the top."
Despite modern technology, Copp's Shoes has continued to ring up sales on the shop's original cash register.
"Our cash register is vintage 1911/1912," he said. "It has been here since Day 1. It still works. I use it everyday. I haven't had a repairman look at that - of course no one would know how to fix it anymore."
With a decision made to close shop on Dec. 31 (or when the merchandise is gone), Brine ensured his three-year-old grandson got a chance to check out the sliding ladders during a recent visit to the store.
"He loved it," he smiled. "He went right to the top. He's a daredevil."
Through the years, Copp's Shoes has seen generations of families support the business and buy their shoes at the independent shoe store. Brine feels blessed that so many people have supported small business in New Westminster.
"We have a great following," Brine said. "I feel so lucky."
Copp's Shoes' longstanding relationship with customers has
made the decision to close particularly difficult. Having lost a brother to cancer and watching other family members battle illness has brought home the need to retire and enjoy life for Brine.
"A number of things have happened," he said. "You realize life is short. You have to make the best of it."
After 42-odd years of fulltime work, the New Westminster native is looking forward to travelling, enjoying other interests and spending some time with his grandchildren.
Brine, who co-owns the Lewis-Brine block with fellow downtown businessman Bill Lewis, will continue to be involved in the property.
Brine notes that his decision to retire and close shop comes at a time when the downtown is being reborn.
"I see a bright future. I wish I was 15 years younger."
? For more photos of Copp's shoes, go to www.royalcityrecord.com