Dee’s Shoes has comforted Tucson’s soles for 60 years.
But its owners, Ted and Judy Direnfeld, say the time has come for them to retire. Dee’s Shoes plans to close its doors at the end of the day Nov. 30.
Dee’s opened in 1953, and at the time was the only fully orthopedic shoe store in Tucson, Ted Direnfeld said.
The shoe shop made plaster of Paris casts that were sent to a factory to make custom shoes for its customers with medical problems. Podiatrists often sent their patients to Dee’s to get the proper shoes.
Reminiscing last week, the couple talked and laughed about the foul smells produced by making molds and casts.
“We weren’t too popular (with the neighbors) during the summer making casts,” Ted said, “with people’s swamp coolers sucking in that nasty stuff.”
Ted got into the business when his father, Harry Direnfeld — the store’s founder — asked him to join him in his Sixth Avenue store. Dee’s was still fairly new, having been open about 2½ years. Ted continued to work with his dad and eventually took over the business. In all, Ted has been with Dee’s for 57 years.
According to Judy Direnfeld, Dee’s was the original store for wide-width shoes. “We carried them before anybody carried them,” she said. “We carried sizes up to 18 and 20. A lot of basketball players came in here.”
Dee’s Shoes has been at its current location on East Broadway for 36 years. It has survived construction, roadwork and recession.
“It’s the oldest independent shoe store in Tucson,” Judy said.
She credits the store’s success to its attention to customers. “Dee’s is known for service,” she said. “If it doesn’t fit properly, we won’t sell it to you.”
Many of Dee’s customers have been shopping there for years. Regular customers who have moved out of state still call Dee’s to order shoes. And Ted will ship them. “I try to give as much service as possible,” he said. “It’s the way I was brought up.”
None of the couple’s three children is going to take over the family-run business. And the Direnfelds are OK with that. They said the retail world has changed in ways that make it hard for small, independent shoe stores.
“Independent shoe stores are almost a thing of the past,” Judy said. “The big companies are taking over.” The couple said the shoe manufacturers cater more to the bigger companies, making it difficult to compete unless a business really has a niche.
Dee’s has been a two-person operation for about 12 years. Ted works in the store. Judy works in the office and periodically helps out on the sales floor when it’s busy. The Direnfelds haven’t had a real vacation during that time.
“Going to the shoe shows every year,” Ted said. “That’s been vacation.”
The couple plans to remedy that by traveling the United States once the store closes. After that, things are uncertain. Judy will continue to volunteer at Tucson Medical Center. Ted is considering volunteering or getting a part-time job. “I can’t sit still,” he said. “I’ll get bored.”
Leaving a business behind after 57 years is difficult, Ted said. “I have mixed emotions about it. ... But I’m going to be 77. It’s time to retire.”