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No Business Like Shoe Business

AJC Article by Ailene Voisin

April 14th, 1990

The weathered brick building is nestled among a number of boarded-up shops, just off the corner of Mitchell and Forsyth streets in downtown Atlanta, across from a modern, multi-tiered parking facility. A first inclination is to keep walking, but that would be a big mistake. Especially for those with big feet., Especially for pro basketball players with big feet.

"It's like a candy store," said Phoenix Suns forward Tom Chambers, owner of size-15 feet. "When you're a kid growing up, it's virtually impossible to find shoes in large sizes. But you walk in there, and see all the different sizes and styles, and you can't make up your mind. So you buy a lot of everything."

Friedman's Men's Shoes, established in 1929, is owned by Bruce Teilhaber and family. It is the shoe store of the rich and famous, and the not-so-rich-and famous. But it's definitely the shoe store of choice for the majority of players in the NBA.

Julius Erving parked his limousine in front and strolled in earlier this year. Charles Barkley brought the entire 76ers team with him in February. James Worthy and A.C. Green introduced Yugoslav rookie Vlade Divac to Friedman's in March and literally had to tug the wide-eyed rookie out the door. Benoit Benjamin, as an NBA rookie, bought 23 pairs in one visit.

The typical scenario is this: If a team arrives in Atlanta the evening before a game against the Hawks, Teilhaber lingers in the store, awaiting a phone call from a hotel
bellman. He then quickly sends a van to get the players, oversees the very low-key sales process (the players already know most of the employees, most of the employees know the players' preference and sizes), then drives the players back to the hotel.

When a visiting team arrives on a game day, Teilhaber usually receives the call late in the morning or early afternoon. But he invariably receives a call.

"The only people (in the NBA) I can think of who haven't bought shoes are Pat Riley, and I haven't met the Sixers' coach (Jim Lynam) and Larry Bird," said the owner, wrinkling his brow in thought. "But I hear Bird's not into dressing."

True. But his teammate, Robert Parish, 7 feet 1, is one of Teilhaber's "biggest" customers, as is Akeem Olajuwon and Dominique Wilkins. Olajuwon recently asked Teilhaber to pick him up on a Sunday afternoon, although the store normally is closed. "He called and said he needed shoes," said Teilhaber. "Now, Akeem doesn't need shoes--I send him shoes all the time--but what he meant was that he wanted shoes. So I drove over tot the hotel, picked him up and sold him 30 pair." The best customer? "Dominique, by far," said Teilhaber. "I've been taking care of Dominique for years. He's No. 1. He'll come in, talk with other customers about basketball, then buy something like six pair a week for 24 weeks. Every shoe in this store, in his size (13), he has. He really knows his way around." The entry to the store leads into a small reception area, with signs guiding prospective customers up a short flight of stairs and toward rows of dust-covered shoe boxes. "Up the other stairs," Teilhaber motions, pointing to the left. The second stairway leads to the real thing--a large room with rows and rows of leather shoes, encircled by walls adorned with autographed pictures of players and teams from various leagues, college and professional. Near the back is a small, semi-private room that attracts the most fasion-conscious. "That's our skins room," said Teilhaber. "That's the Rolls-Royce. Cows, ostrich, alligator, snake, lizard--we have them all. The only thing we don't carry is fish. To be honest, I saw some of those once and it kind of grossed me out, so I wouldn't buy them. I couldn't buy them. But we have everything else." Although he was unable to estimate the size of his inventory, Teilhaber says the downtown store--the other one is run by his wife, Davida, in Buckhead--covers 17,000 square feet, with 20 percent of his stock consisting of shoes in sizes 10 and above. The average price of a pair of leather shoes is $100, while a pair of "skins" generally sells for $400. According to several players, there isn't another store on the NBA circuit that rivals Friedman's in either volume, diversity or price--factors Teilhaber began to capitalize on shortly after purchasing the business from his father-in-law almost 20 years ago. His first move was to join forces with Stephen Fuchs, a New York-based importer who succeeded in persuading manufacturers in Italy to produce products in larger sizes. "You have to understand," said Teilhaber, "people in Europe are short, with short, wide feet. At first they didn't believe there was a market for people with 14, 15, or even size 18 feet. But Stephen did a great job." The word spread quickly, and in the last 20 years the store has accommodated large athletes from all sports. "The people are terrific to deal with," said the Milwaukee Bucks' Jay Humphries. "They know your size, the type of shoe you like, and they don't use pressure tactics. A lot of guys just order shoes on the phone and have them shipped to their homes." Suns diminutive coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, proving that short people can find fulfillment at Friedman's as well, compared the place to a sports bar, minus the booze and the big screen TVs. "It's a happening," said Fitzsimmons, "not just a shoe store."