Alden Shoes of New York, one of the premier Alden retailers in the world, has been serving faithful customers for over 30 years from its prestigious location in mid-town Manhattan on Madison Avenue. I was fortunate to have a lengthy conversation with one of its founders and co-owners, Mr. Ralph Bonato, about the origins of the store, its clientele, and its dedication to the Alden brand.
JS: Ralph, thank you so much for this opportunity to speak to you today. I thought the legions of Alden fans, both new and old, would love to hear about the history of the store and how it has managed to survive through economic cycles, the offshoring of the production of American shoes, and the rise of e-commerce.
RB: Thank you for the opportunity.
JS: Let’s start with your entrance into the shoe business.
RB: I was working in the restaurant business in Brooklyn and left to take a job at a shoe store nearby. From there, I had the opportunity to become a salesman at shoe store in Manhattan called Wright Arch Preserver Shoes. I started there on March 29, 1980. After about ten years, Wright Shoes decided that they didn’t want to sell shoes in New York City any longer, primarily due to the cost of rising rents. So Wright Shoes sold me their fixtures, I found two partners, and we re-opened with inventory from Wright Shoes, among others.
JS: And where was the location of that store?
RB: That store was just two doors away from our current location at 340 Madison Ave. Wright Shoes had been in that location since 1926!
JS: At the time of your opening, what other brands were you selling in the store?
RB: We also sold Sebago, Rockport, Timberland, etc.
JS: Were all of those brands made in the USA back then?
RB: Yes, but once production moved out of the US, the quality went down and many people stopped buying them. So we eventually dropped those brands.
JS: Opening in 1990 must have been quite difficult, as I remember the early 90s being tough economic times in New York City. What was your initial plan or vision for the store?
RB: First of all, I wanted to show that I could improve on the existing store and grow the business three to four times of what it was. And from May to December of that first year, we grew the store tremendously.
Soon after we opened, Floyd Gilmore (the Alden sales rep at the time) approached me and said that one day he’d love to see Alden shoes in the window of our store. Due to Alden shoes being sold at the time by multiple nearby stores like Brooks Brothers and Fellman Shoes, Alden wouldn’t allow us to sell their shoes. Oversaturation of the market was a concern.
However, one day, around 1992, Floyd Gilmore paid me a visit and said Fellman Shoes was no longer an Alden account. Alden was now able to sell me shoes!
[Read more from the interviewer: Why Alden Is (By Far) My Favorite Shoe Company]
JS: What was that sales arrangement like at first? Were there certain models that you had to sell? Were there certain minimums?
RB: No, not at all. Ideally, I would have liked to sell all of their models, but just starting out, that would have been difficult financially.
JS: What models did you initially sell? Was shell cordovan in the initial offerings?
RB: Yes, shell cordovan was part of what we offered, and it sold well, but the most popular models overall were calfskin models like the tassel loafer, the penny loafer, and the full strap loafer in black calfskin (model 681).
[Related: The Best Cordovan Boots On the Market]
JS: What was the number one best seller at that time?
RB: Model 990, the color 8 shell cordovan plain toe shoe, was our best seller. Model 684, the full strap loafer in color 8 shell cordovan was also a top seller.
JS: It’s 1992 and you’re in mid-town Manhattan at a time when business casual hadn’t yet changed the way people dress for work. Was your typical client the businessman wearing a suit five days a week?
RB: Yes, we did sell to that clientele, but just as we do today, we sold to all types of people.
JS: Let’s talk about what happened with the offshoring of shoe production in the 1990s. Many shoe companies, it seemed, started competing on price, rather than on quality. Did you ever feel that this cheapening of the market was a threat to the Alden brand?
RB: No, because the quality of Alden surpassed all of those brands. People who appreciated the quality didn’t mind paying for it.
JS: I couldn’t agree more! Taking one step in a properly fitted quality shoe is like nothing else.
Ok, so we’re at the point where you’ve added Alden to your store. When and how did you steer the store to an Alden-only shop?
RB: We started dropping some of the other brands after ’92, and eventually dropped Wright shoes by the early 2000s, due to quality issues. When we moved to our current location, around the year 2000, we got permission from Alden to use their name.
JS: So now it’s the early 2000s, you’re an Alden-only shop, and it’s just about the time of the rise of e-commerce. Alden prefers their shoes to be bought in-person, to ensure a proper fitting so that the customer gets the best possible experience. Did you feel that the rise of e-commerce, and the initial hesitancy of Alden to sell their shoes on-line, would ultimately hurt the business?
RB: Well, it really didn’t. Most of our customers still came into the store to make their purchases. People like to look at shoes and see what they are buying. We’re in a great location, right next to Grand Central Terminal, and we still get a lot of foot traffic.
JS: Your store has such a great reputation in the Alden community for the customer experience. With plenty of competition in your two-block radius, what did you aim for with your customer experience?
RB: I wanted to get the shoe on the customer’s foot and explain to him how it was the best shoe that was made. I wanted to personally fit the customer and show him the comfort that was unlike any other shoe. I wanted to explain the longevity of the shoe and the ability to recraft it to extend its life.
JS: What were your favorite models back then, being on your feet all day?
RB: I mostly wore style 907 (calfskin cap-toe balmoral on the Hampton last). That was one of my favorite shoes. I never felt like I had shoes on my feet when I wore that model.
JS: Let’s talk about two things that the current generation of Alden fans are always asking about: the exotic shell cordovan colors and special make-ups models. First, when did Alden add the rare shell cordovan colors, such as Cigar and Ravello, to their line-up?
RB: That was probably around 20 years ago or so.
JS: And with that, did you find that customers came into the store only looking for the rare colors?
RB: No, not at that time. People did ask for it, but it didn’t stop them from buying other shoes.
JS: The new management team at your store, Anthony, Joseph, Aniello, and Curtis have done a great job during this pandemic in expanding the special make-up selections that the store offers. Special make-ups and “crowd-funded” styles now even have their own section on the web-site due to their popularity. This is a win-win, in my opinion. For the customer, it allows a unique collaboration with the brand to design unique models. For Alden and its retailers, it drives growth of the brand. Was this special make-up culture prominent when you first opened the store? Was it a large part of your business?
RB: When we first opened, yes, we had special make-ups, but the customer wasn’t as involved as he is today. I was predominantly designing the shoes, in collaboration with Floyd Gilmore. Anthony, Curtis, Aniello and Joseph have really pushed that forward.
JS: Were there any special make-ups made with customers during the early years that you can remember?
RB: Yes, I had a customer who wanted a black Indy boot, which wasn’t available at the time. I worked with Floyd to get that model designed. That’s how the black Indy boot became a standard model (model 401).
JS: The story of how you became an Alden-only shop would make a very interesting business case-study. Many pieces of the puzzle had to fall into place over time for that to happen: issues with Wright Shoes, an existing relationship with Floyd Gilmore, Fellman shoes no longer selling Alden, etc. It wasn’t that you made the decision to become an Alden-only shop in a vacuum. If you think back to your business progression, is there anything you would have done differently?
RB: I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I did the best I could to grow the store and provide the best customer experience. Alden and I always had a solid business relationship, built on mutual trust. They are a A-1 organization, from top to bottom. Alden trusted me enough to be the first store to use their name without being a company-owned store (such as the Alden shops of Washington DC and San Francisco).
JS: I know you’re retired now, but do you still keep Aldens on your feet?
RB: Absolutely! I have a pair of Alden boat shoes that I’ve been wearing for over 15 years. I wear Alden loafers and an Indy boot as well.
JS: Ralph, this has been an incredible learning experience. Thank you so much for your time and insights. Before we end, any last thoughts on your best memories over the past 30 years?
RB: My best memories are taking care of so many loyal customers over the years, providing the best customer experience for the best shoes. I’ve fitted everyone from senators to celebrities, United Nations dignitaries to fashion designers. But I always enjoyed serving the average customer most of all.
JS: After 30 years, your store remains one of first destinations for Alden buyers, and it’s easy to see why. Your dedication to the customer and the brand has been clearly passed down to the next generation running the store. Thank you for that and thank you again for this discussion. Enjoy your well-earned retirement.
RB: Thank you. Happy New Year!
Visit Alden Shoes of New York at 340 Madison Ave in the heart of New York City. Shop their styles on-line at www.AldenMadison.com.