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Ross McDonald and his son Stewart are closing the store together
Ross McDonald and his son Stewart are closing the store together

Clark's Shoes in Cornwall says good-bye after 116 years

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In Cornwall, Ontario, Clark's Shoes has been meeting footwear needs for customers on both sides of the border since 1896. Ross McDonald has spent over half a century running the store his maternal grandfather founded. For shoppers of a certain age, this is what buying shoes has always been like: helpful, personable service in a family-owned business. McDonald is retiring near the end of this month and a lot of his customers are feeling the loss. Lucy Martin dropped by the store earlier this month, when most everything was on sale and business was brisk.

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Lucy Martin
Ottawa Correspondent

Birds sing and a bus goes past the shoe store on Pitt Street, which reflects a city in transition. It's a mix of one or two-story restaurants and stores, plus a few low-rise office buildings. Some look perky while others look a bit tired. Ross McDonald has seen the whole cycle. For him, though, it's simply time to move on.

Shoes are on display tables outside and inside of his store. Customers banter about what to buy, if anything. Sale prices mean a lot of sizes are already gone. Shoppers seem split between between pure bargain hunters and regulars, full of nostalgic goodbyes. McDonald handles it all with good cheer and said, “We just run out of racetrack; we're all getting younger, I don't understand it! But we've enjoyed our career. And we've been here for 116 years, started by my grandfather. My Father and myself. My son. We've enjoyed it.”

Asked if he felt compelled to enter the family business, McDonald said it was his own choice. “Yup! It was no problem! I started when I was 13, washing windows and sweeping floors and doing what had to be done to learn the shoe trade. And then when I was 16, my father had a heart attack, so I left school to run the store. 'Cause I had a little bit of an idea of what it was all about, kept right on going. That's when I decided, OK, this is what I want to do: career."

As to the responsibility of running a business at such a young age McDonald said, “Well, like I say, it was that or close. So, we just decided if this is what we want to do. And we did it, and we've enjoyed it. Since I started in '56, all the stores have changed in the street. People are creatures of habit."

However, the demographics have changed and it is now easier to buy shoes elsewhere. "Where, when I started, everything was made in Canada. We had six tanneries, you could get leather, whatever you needed you could get made. Well, today, it's all mass production and the Canadian companies. Once we went global, everything changed," said McDonald. "Canada is so small on the world market, that it couldn't compete."

A woman who worked for McDonald for 27 years has since opened a store in Ingleside. She's picked up most of the lines carried by McDonald, so they will still be available to local consumers. "That was our biggest concern, to leave all these people in the lurch," said McDonald. “You know, shoes are important. You have to have comfort. You know, if you have problem feet, the companies we deal with, and they come in eight different widths, and they're specifically designed to walk. And she's going to have them.”

With less than two weeks to go until he retires, McDonald has yet to formulate summer plans that diverge from his current work. “Well, I do have a farm. Mother had the shoe store, father had the farm. And I've had both for the last 40 years to pitch back and forth with. And I've enjoyed it. Like, you're born in the business, and this is what you do. Tag, you're it!” said McDonald. Now that he will have more time to farm and will have winters free, he says that he might do some travelling.

Retirement will be a change from the day to day routine that McDonald has followed for over 50 years. He said, “Yeah, well, it's different, but like I say, I've got something else to do. We enjoy the gardening, and stuff like that. We cash crop 100 acres of corn. We've had the farm for about six generations. So, it's not new, but it's just different. But this is it: it's retire gracefully. Grandfather started with buttonhooks.”

To his customers, McDonald said, “Well, I just want to thank them for their loyalty over the years that they've supported us. That it's been a pleasure to serve them. It's nice, when people have problems, you can come in and help them out and it makes a difference to them, and that means we're doing the job right.”

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