There is a dusty old cavern of a shop on the corner of Fox and Loveday streets in downtown Johannesburg that specialises in the fine art of men’s shoes. Plain-toed, cap-toed, brogues, loafers — you name it, they have been selling it here for the past seven and a half decades. But please only come if you are serious about shoes and want something serious. Don’t ask for high-tops or flip flops or, heaven forbid, anything as crude and unsophisticated as Crocs. They won’t have a clue what you are talking about.
No, Erlings is a shop that has stood the test of time. Started by Ernest Erling in 1937, this now unassuming storefront was once a beacon of success. Current owner Bill Hoffman took over 25 years ago and hasn’t missed a day’s work since. “We are here at 7am every morning and are open till 5pm,” says the 83-year-old.
Shop manager Robbie Bersiks is 74 and the two shop assistants Jacob Molefe, 54, and Sidney Ngcuka, 62, have worked here for 13, 10 and 20 years respectively. The average age of the Erlings team is 68. They know what it means to sell a pair of shoes. There is no better place to be advised on comfort, fit and durability.
Business over the years has deteriorated steadily Hoffman says. But, owing largely to its solid reputation as having the best shoes money can buy, it has lived to see another day, even when almost all its competitors either dropped out of the game or moved to the malls.
The glass door opens with the ring of an old-fashioned bell and you are instantly transported to a bygone era. Narrow wooden shelves line all four walls with row upon row of shoes.
This is an extensive collection, imported from all four corners of the globe — the US, Italy, China, Spain —yet some of the best sellers are locally made. Prestigious UK brand Crockett & Jones, which is produced in SA under licence, is a case in point. Ever popular, this is a label known for its enduring quality and sophistication. It comes in all sorts of desirable finishes for any occasion: polished tan, shiny black patent, mock alligator, and even a couple of pairs of pin striped leather brogues. The priciest pair is made of genuine ostrich skin and sells for R3 500. But for the most part, Erlings appears to offer reasonable pricing when compared to what the malls are charging.
Hoffman counts deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and presidential hopeful Tokyo Sexwale among his clients.
“It’s the same people who keep coming back for more,” he explains. Many of those who started out as regular customers developed into firm family friends as the years went on. “We’ve had grandfathers, fathers and sons coming in here. Three generations in one family buying their shoes.”
BY TARYN LAMBERTI | PHOTOGRAPHY KARL ROGERS
Erlings, 99 Fox Street, Johannesburg, 011 838 3380