Column: Losing a Friend, and Community

Paying final respects to Bill Brown of College Shoe Repair
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

It was a beautiful summer morning. I walked from my home in Ann Arbor, down State Street, to St. Thomas the Apostle Church. A crowd had already gathered outside, waiting to pay respects to our old friend, Mr. Brown.

No one told us to call him that. We just did.

In 1937, Mr. Brown’s father and grandfather opened a store called College Shoe Repair. Mr. Brown took over the business in 1951, the same year he married Dorothy – or Mrs. Brown, to us. They worked together every day. They had seven kids, and all of them worked at the store at some point.

When the shoe repair business slowed down in the ’70s, Mr. Brown started selling hockey equipment and sharpening skates. That’s how most of us got to know him.

Mr. Brown was gruff and sometimes grouchy. He had a temper, and he didn’t suffer fools too gladly. But if he was no glad-hander, he was no pretender, either. There was not a phony bone in that man’s body. If he got to know you – and he seemed to know everyone who visited his place more than twice – you soon discovered he was as loyal as a hunting dog, and good company.

Mr. Brown never played hockey himself, but he knew more about the local hockey scene than just about anyone in town. His store served as the nerve center for everybody who played or coached or reffed or drove their kids to some freezing rink at six in the morning. When I coached the Huron High School hockey team, he never had to ask me how we were doing, because he already knew – and on some days, he seemed to know better than I did.

Most of all, Mr. Brown cared. He cared about the quality of his work, whether he was re-soling a pair of shoes or re-palming a pair of hockey gloves. He cared about his customers, and the people who played the game, from Mites to Masters. Mr. Brown often grumbled about the homeless people around his store, but then you’d catch him slipping one of them a few bucks just for washing his windows.

I wonder who will care about all those people now.

After the service, I walked back from St. Thomas, right up State Street, to take another walk around Mr. Brown’s block. I strolled past Hank at Van Bovens, Jerome at the Diag Party Store, Dave at White’s Market, Marizio at New York Pizza Delivery, John at Gold Bond Cleaners and right next door, Pete at Frank’s Restaurant. I know them all by name, and they all know me – and hundreds of other customers, too, because they’re not customers to them. They’re friends.

Storefront of College Shoe Repair

The storefront of College Shoe Repair on East William in Ann Arbor.

When I coached the high school team, each fall we had to raise money to keep our team going. We learned pretty quickly that there was no point asking the franchise stores on that block, or anywhere else. They have no idea who you are, they don’t care, and they’ll tell you to call the people at corporate – who care even less.

But every one of those Mom and Pop stores bought an ad in our program, even though they’re all fighting for survival. That’s what friends do.

I fear their days are numbered. The rent on that block is astronomical, as much as $10,000 a month. The chain stores come in, and if it proves too much for them, what do they care? They just pull out – and leave behind a higher rate for everyone else, and an empty storefront, sometimes for years.

But that’s capitalism, and if you believe in the free market, there’s not much you can say. But you’d have to be blind not to see the cost.

We’re losing our community. We’re losing our sense of belonging. We’re losing our friends.

My last stop on my tour was Mr. Brown’s store. I looked down at my shoes, which Mr. Brown had shined himself a half-dozen times, and re-soled once. I looked up at the door, and read a hand-written sign that said, “Death in the Family. Closed Saturday. Open Monday.”

I hope it always is.

Editor’s note: Jess William “Bill” Brown passed away on July 4, 2010. The family has suggested memorial contributions to the American Diabetes Association.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By sally m
    July 16, 2010 at 9:27 am | permalink

    Nice tribute. One of the people at the funeral was “Ozzie” who works at Park Shoe Repair. Her father worked for thirty-some years at College Shoe Repair. I’ll make sure she sees this.

  2. By Sharon P.
    July 16, 2010 at 9:46 am | permalink

    What a wonderful tribute, thank you for sharing your memories.

  3. July 16, 2010 at 10:51 am | permalink

    Poignant tribute, John. Thank you.

  4. By Bev (Brown) McDonnell
    July 16, 2010 at 11:24 am | permalink

    Thank you for the lovely tribute to my late Father and for your support of small businesses everywhere. “Mr. Brown” would have been very touched.

  5. July 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm | permalink

    Well done John. Your tribute and Paul Helber’s talk at the service both paint a picture that will not soon be forgotten.

  6. By ScratchingmyHead
    July 16, 2010 at 9:00 pm | permalink

    You know. It’s funny. From the time I came her to go to school in the early 70′s, this is the only shoe shop I ever visited. Even when I moved to Detroit for a brief stint, I still did business with College Shoe repair. I never knew the gentleman’s name but he always waited on me and always took the time to explain what needed to be done. My condolences to the family.

  7. By David Shand
    July 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm | permalink

    Nice tribute Bacs. He was a good man. Used to leave holes in the fingers of my hockey gloves so I could grab jerseys. Now that’s custom fitting.

  8. By Valerie Mangual
    July 20, 2010 at 12:13 pm | permalink

    Mr. Brown has polished, conditioned, re-heeled, re-soled, stitched and mended my family’s shoes since we moved to Ann Arbor 18years ago.
    He was a good cobbler and his work was always excellent. I’ll always remember the short and stern lecture I received when I brought a pair of shoes that needed to be glued. Br. Brown did not like glued shoes. I hope that one of his grandson’s or granddaughters takes on the fine and ancient craft that Mr. Brown did so well.

  9. By Mary Jo Easthope Desprez
    July 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm | permalink

    Thank you for writing this! The memorial service was also a wonderful tribute and a bit of an Ann Arbor ‘ol school reunion. For those of us that grew up on Pontiac Trail with the Brown family it is so nice to have his memory honored this way.