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Date added: 12/31/1999 Fitting Athlete's Feet

By David E. Taylor

When athletes are on the road, the best way for them to pass the time before a game is to shop. Los Angeles has a great place to buy pants. Jewelry prices are good in San Diego. In Atlanta it's shoes, and Friedman's is the place.

Walking past Friedman's Shoe Store, one feels that he should do just thatókeep walking. It's in one of those sections of town where a person doesn't want to hang around on the streets. About half of the neighboring merchants have moved out, and many of those who stayed need to replace their cracked showcase windows. Some of the storefronts are boarded up, others should be.

If you are looking for something to do around town, however, there is no better place to go than this bargain basement shoe store and sports hall of fame on Mitchell Street. In all probability, you will leave the store with a half-price deal on a pair of shoes, and if there is a sporting event in town, you may get to talk to a professional athlete. A favorite story told by the employees is that Willie Mays once apprenticed as a shoe salesman at Friedman's.

The bottom floor is primarily a shoe repair shop; display shelves are lined with styles from baby blue golf shoes to checkerboard ankle boots. Upstairs is the main attraction; there Bruce Teilhaber and his salesmen work, surrounded by sports memorabilia and an atmosphere of friendly banter.

Georgia Tech football and a quarterback named Billy Lothridge helped boost the business in the early 1960s. Billy knew where to get a bargain on stylish shoes. He made Friedman's popular with his teammates and fellow engineers of North Avenue, but he helped even more by signing to play in the National Football League.

When the Falcons came to Atlanta and Lothridge became their punter, word spread around the NFL on where to buy good-looking footwear. The Braves, Hawks and Flames also boosted sales through word-of-mouth promotion, since that is the only way that Friedman's will advertise.

Bruce estimates that athletes account for about 25% of his store's business. Most players buy from two to six pairs at one time, but there are exceptions. Willie Mays purchases by the dozen. Since Gaylord Perry no longer pitches in the National Leagues and doesn't come to Atlanta, he has shoes sent to him. Rico Carty holds one record that might stand forever-he bought 250 pairs at one time. What did he do with them?

"I dunno," Bruce said. " I just ësell' em."

Even if they don't come to buy, athletes are always welcome at Friedman's, a home on the road for many pros. Personal endorsements provide reasons for the store's popularity; the upstairs walls are lined with photos and autographs from noteworthy friends and customers who play on out of town teams.

A picture of Dan Abramowitz catching a pass for the New Orleans Saints is signed: "To Bruceóa shoe-in for one of the greatest guys I know."

Lou Brock of St. Louis Cardinals autographed his picture with a reminder to Bruce: "(P.S.) Please get those shoes I asked for."

Perhaps Dave Winfield of the San Diego Padres best summarized the feelings of the customer athletes by saying. " I just like the way they do business here.

Among other items on display are jerseys, Frank Robinson's from the Orioles and Johnny Bench's "Cincinnati number 5," and Felix Millan's baseball bat. The Hawks and the Phoenix Suns represent the NBA, while even Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens have contributed pictures, autographs, and a jersey, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and Auburn football helmets are mounted over the stairwell. If Hank Aaron needs a place to display homerun ball number 715. Friedman's is the logical choice.

The shoe salesmen have accepted the fact that these famous customers are ordinary people.

"The Reds and the Dodger are super guys," according to one salesman, Gino. "But the hockey players are probably the nicest ones to wait on. They seem to be more free spirited and they like to kid around." Don't let word travel to Philadelphia but even the Flyers are friendly off the ice.

It should be no surprise that basketball players are the hardest to fit. When a "small" guard wears a size 12, the sky is the limit -- or more correctly, size 18, which is the largest in stock. But if he doesn't have the shoe a player wants, Bruce will try to get it. He tries to please all of his customers, from a famous personality to a man off the streets who just spent his last dime on a pair of new shoes.

Bruce's father-in-law started Friedman's, primarily selling heavy boots to railroad men and used shoes to people who could not afford new ones, but eventually these markets evaporated. Today the store sells factory seconds, but the flaws are hard to find, and customers can buy a pair of shoes for almost half of the intended retail price. Bruce is responsible for building the store's current volume, although he vehemently denies it.

"I didn't do nothing. I'm not gonna do nothing. I just wanna sit here and read the paper," he says in his native Brooklyn accent.

There could be anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 pairs of shoes at Friedman's. Ask Bruce how many there are and he will say, "A lot." Actually, Friedman's may sell more shoes than any other store south of Chicago.

The Atlanta Police Department once took an interest in this thriving southside shoe store, refusing to believe that all those people went of Friedman's just to buy shoes. One day they raided the place, expecting to find a booking parlor in operation. Bruce not only convinced the officers of his store's legitimacy, but he also sold a few pairs of shoes to members of the raiding party.

The building at 209 Mitchell Street has a history as interesting as the shoe store inside. On the third floor is the former grand ballroom of the Southern Railway Company, with gently arched doorways and a turn-of-the century styling that elicits the grandeur of the golden age of rail travel. But what once was purely decorative is now quite functional; the fireplace, edged with mirrors, is now a storage bin for boxes labeled Bass, Florsheim and Pierre Cardin.

The current interior styling is "Decaying American Urban." Boards are exposed where plaster has fallen from the ceiling. Some rooms are carpeted with well-worn scraps, while others are not carpeted at all. Paint is peeling from the smudged green walls, and translucent plastic sheets partition the sales rooms from the "Employees Only" areas. Cobwebs drape the dangling fluorescent lights which illumine the ripped upholstery on the dust-covered chairs. But Bruce will not change a thing. He doesn't want to destroy the "atmosphere."

From the shoe horns and half-read newspapers that litter the floor to the cluttered window display that probably has not been changed since 1958, this is a store for all to experience. Bring a few bucks if you are interested in bargain shoes, and bring an autograph book if a sporting event is in town.

But don't be surprised if some guy in faded denims bums a match from you at 209 Mitchell Street; that's just the owner.