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History time: Sam Klass, a happy shoemaker on South Street in JP

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  July 10, 2012 09:00 AM

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(Courtesy Sheila Klass Lepley)

Sam Klass

Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the first installment in a two-part series. Sam Klass, “Scientific Shoe Rebuilder,” learned the cobbler’s trade at his father’s knee, and he kept at it for nearly 40 years at 66 South Street, Jamaica Plain. Based on a 2012 interview with Sheila Klass Lepley.

Prologue
In the days before we became a “throwaway” society, no one was more important than the local cobbler, or shoe repairman. In 1950, there were 449 shoe repair shops in Boston and 23 of them were in Jamaica Plain. (In 2012 the numbers are 24 in Boston and none in Jamaica Plain.) Sam Klass’s workmanship was unrivalled and his prices were fair. With a competitor just a few hundred yards away, Sam had to work hard to survive. Many will remember the sounds and smells of Sam’s one-man shop at 66 South Street where he could put new life into a pair of worn shoes, or dye a pair to meet a new wardrobe’s needs – and he always did it with a smile. He was a happy man.

Beginnings
Simon “Sam” Klass was born in Boston on April 23, 1907, and he died in Tucson, Arizona, March 9, 2007, reaching the 100-year milestone with neither fanfare nor, because he had left Boston, a Boston Post Cane.

In 1905, his parents, Solomon and Massa, operated a shoe repair shop at 2945 Washington Street, near Egleston Square. They had three children: Max, Esther, and Albert, and they all lived above the shop, which has been replaced by condominiums.

1910 finds Solomon – now called Sam – and Massa, moving the shop to 706 Centre Street, near the present Galway House Pub. They now have four children, with the addition of our Simon “Sam” Klass.

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(Courtesy Sheila Klass Lepley)
Sam Klass with customer in 1930s.
In 1925, Sam Klass, shoe repairman, is listed with a home address of 119 Humbolt Avenue, Roxbury. He is working in his father’s Centre Street shop, because at 18, Sam was hardly ready to be running his own shop and he was, in fact, helping to raise his three siblings when his mother, Massa, died.

By 1930, Sam Klass, shoe repairman, now 23, is shown at 59 South Street, near Custer Street. His home is listed at 62 Crawford Street, Roxbury, where he lives with Albert and Meyer Klass, Joseph Cohen, and Max and Hannah Rines.

By 1940 Sam is across the street at 66 South Street, where he worked until retiring in 1967. He and his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1934, are renting an apartment at, coincidentally, 66 Boynton Street until 1959, when they moved to 20 Wellington Hill Street, in Mattapan.

In 1976 Helen decided it was time to leave the Boston area for warmer climes and the love of family, especially two grandsons. Sam absolutely refused to leave. This was the land of his parents, siblings, work and many memories. Helen packed up, sold some of the furniture, gave things away, and bought an airline ticket for Arizona. Only then did he reluctantly agree to leave with her. After one year of living in Tucson, he admitted that it was indeed beautiful, in fact unbelievable, compared to cold, snow and ice. When asked if he would like to move back to JP, the answer was a definite “NO.”

The business grows
Sam’s shop was always humming as his business and reputation grew. Sam’s price of 94 cents for new leather soles and rubber heels and his shoe-dying clinics – where every eighth customer’s shoes were dyed free – along with his price list for shoe repairs, makes one wonder where the profit was, and how hard he must have worked to make a decent living. He must have wondered too, because before long, he branched out to selling women’s upscale shoes on Saturdays. He found a source of closed-out shoes from an expensive shoe store on Tremont Street, downtown, and advertised widely in the local and Boston newspapers. As a result, he drew customers from all over the city, selling only on Saturdays, at two pairs for $5, a true bargain in those days. Sheila Klass Lepley, Sam’s daughter, remembers staffing the store on those busy Saturdays, standing at the cash register where the shoes were flying out, keeping her fingers dancing on the keys. She also remembers Sam’s permanently discolored hands from the dyes, polishes, glues and lacquers he used every day, and the smell of leather that he carried wherever he went. She still has some of his leather-cutting knives and uses them daily in her kitchen.

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(Courtesy of Peter O’Brien)
66 South Street, 2012.
The bare-bones shop of the ‘30s later filled up with updated shoe-repair machinery, storage for new and repaired shoes, and seats for new-shoe customers to be fitted. Sam, always in shirt and tie, wore a red monogrammed smock tied tightly at the waist. His broad smile greeted everyone entering the store. He was a happy man. World War II, with the introduction of rationing, saw Sam’s business pick up significantly but without, necessarily, a corresponding boost in profits. Nevertheless, he was always busy, and that’s when he seemed to be happiest.

Notwithstanding the hard work and long hours, Sam Klass was always ready to sew a kid’s baseball or hockey glove, or a dropped stitch in a leather pocketbook or belt, or any other leather repair beyond the owner’s skill, as a goodwill gesture for his customers and neighbors, waving off any offer of payment. He became a fixture on South Street. At a recent gathering of 22 Jamaica Plain seniors, every one of the over-eighty, but still spry, guys fondly remembered Sam and his shop. Sam’s goodwill is still around. And now that he’s gone, one of the great ironies, his daughter Sheila notes, is how her dad, Sam Klass, faithfully rode his bike to work every day, long after people were buying cars, and now there’s a bike shop at 66 South Street, in his former shoe shop. He would be happy about that.

This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.

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(Courtesy Sheila Klass Lepley)

Sam Klass price list.

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