Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A display at David’s Shoes on First in East Cambridge on Thursday. (Photo: Hui-En Lin)

After a successful move, David’s Shoes on First is in Cambridge to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.

After more than 60 years in business, Shoes on First shut its doors in early June. After a three-month hiatus, the East Cambridge institution reopened in September a block from the original and still on First Street.

But if you ask Robert Valway, the store’s owner, that block to 117 First St. is a lot farther than it seems. He and his sons lugged every pair of shoes from the old storefront to the new. That move, which took three days, followed weeks of painting and preparation.

“It wasn’t that hard to move up the street,” Valway said. “Granted, moving all this was a lot. We have over 4,000 pairs of shoes. Just think about that.”

Robert Valway, owner of David’s Shoes on First, in his new location Thursday. (Photo: Hui-En Lin)

Though the store’s move has been relatively smooth, it was largely out of Valway’s control. Around 2017, Valway said, real estate developer Urban Spaces bought his building as a part of its broader First Street Corridor project. The building is being demolished and replaced with new storefronts and 90 apartments, a project Cambridge’s Planning Board approved unanimously in February.

“I really thought that it was coming to an end,” Valway said, “and that I was going to have to move” out of Cambridge, given the city’s notoriously high rents. He saw Tewksbury, his hometown, as a potential landing spot. Newburyport, which Valway described as “like you’re on vacation all the time,” was another option.

Thanks to the Cambridge business community, the store got a second chance. The East Cambridge Business Association worked with Valway to get more customers through his door; Urban Spaces, led by chief executive Paul Ognibene and chief operating officer Dave Notter, gave Valway an affordable rate at a new location.

“They bent over backward to make sure that the store stayed here,” Valway said of Ognibene and Notter. “That was a godsend.”

Flashbacks and growing pain

Shoes on First had done business in its original location at 75 First St. since its founding in 1959 by David Sobel. In addition to shoes, he carried leather jackets, rented roller skates and offered cobbling services. After 35 years, Sobel sold his business to Valway, who started working at the shop in 1989.

In the new storefront, Valway has tried to maintain as much of the original atmosphere as possible. He brought over the old store’s shelves, refreshing them with a coat of gray paint, and preserved a set of emerald leather chairs from the turn of the 20th century. He decorated the shop with photographs of the original building. Together with his friendly customer service, the decor gives the store what Valway called a “barbershop” feel.

The new David’s Shoes on First store at 117 First St., East Cambridge. (Photo: Hui-En Lin)

“We tried to carry on as much character as that,” Valway said as he pointed to a picture of the old store.

The new store, Valway said, is more efficient than the first spot, which was twice as big and, as a result, twice as expensive to heat and cool. Unlike the old building, the new store has a basement.

Lack of foot traffic

But not all is better. Though business has been slow since the start of the pandemic, Valway experienced a sharp downturn after moving. Shoes on First has fewer immediate neighbors, and Valway said he hasn’t seen the same volume of customers.

“Things are really not the same as far as foot traffic in the area, especially with the loss of Sears, Best Buy and Macy’s” at the CambridgeSide mall across the street, he said. Owner New England Development is turning the mass of retail into a mixed-use mini-neighborhood – but the project approved in 2019 isn’t complete. “They leave the retail space empty on the bottom of these buildings, and they’re just sitting.”

To create a more lively business culture on First Street – and beyond – Valway would encourage developers to earmark a percentage of new storefronts as affordable-small-business space, much like is done with affordable housing. Such a setup would benefit residents, who would have access to affordable, local businesses.

“That’s what this area has lost a little bit: the neighborhood feel,” Valway said.

Time is ticking

As Urban Spaces finishes its various First Street projects in the next few years, Valway hopes that the new apartments will drive more traffic to his store. The one-mile “First Street Corridor” between the Lechmere MBTA station and Kendall Square is a four-parcel, $275 million project that Urban Spaces expects will add 53,000 square feet of office space, 50,000 square feet of retail, 250 parking spaces and more than 250 housing units.

“I think eventually, maybe two years from now, things will get better as these buildings start to fill up again, especially the residence buildings,” he said.

Time is ticking, however. Valway’s lease lasts five years, and he has an option to renew it for five more. Whether he can stay in Cambridge, Valway said, depends on how many customers walk through the door, which, at the moment, are too few. Though he hasn’t ruled out a move, he said he sincerely hopes to stay in the city.

“I’m in this for the long haul. I love this community. I love the city of Cambridge, and I want to stay in this area,” he said.