Exciting things are astir at the intersection of George Mason Boulevard and Lee Highway (U.S. 29) in Arlington County, Virginia. This should come as no surprise: it’s a prominent intersection, given that Lee Highway is a busy, heavily commercialized arterial, while George Mason Boulevard is a stately collector (much of it with a tree-lined median) that links some of this affluent county’s most desirable older neighborhoods. Here’s the northwest corner of the intersection in question, featuring a squat, tidy, versatile little building that could have hosted a variety of retail or light service uses.
Due to the building’s site on a prominent corner, I could easily see it at one time accommodating an auto mechanic shop, then, with some scrubbing of the interior and the elimination of the garage, it has morphed into a more office-oriented use. According to recent Google Street View images, it was the home of a title loan office as recently as November 2019. With only about a dozen or so clearly defined parking spaces, it may be tough to host something like a restaurant, which has customer surges at certain times of the day. But many other services expect a more steady, even customer base spread across those operating hours. Like title loans.
And then there’s the smaller space just to the left of the main tenant.
Needless to say, it’s vacant too. A quick visit to that same Google Street View image indicates that it was the site of Sam Torrey Shoe Service until recently. Also gone. While the vacancies are relevant, what intrigues me more is the trim at the cornice line for the left-hand tenant: the horizontal red, blue, and orange. Is it purely decorative? Or could it be a reference to the Armenian flag?
My vote is on the latter—usually a safe vote. If businesses have a chance to signal something through their embellishments, they often do. Why shouldn’t they? It means the ornamentation serves two functions rather than one: both aesthetics and a second, often cryptic signal. I wrote about the placement of multi-national flags at an auto body shop on the Maryland side of DC metro last year. That Maryland storefront had a lot more flags—Armenian was among them—and it was much more overt. Maybe this location in Arlington deploys the Armenian tricolor purely coincidentally. After all, “Sam Torrey” is hardly a dead-giveaway for an Armenian establishment. Armenian last names are distinctive, and this ain’t one of them.
A quick search on the history of Sam Torrey Shoe Service reveals that local media covered the closure: the owner decided last summer, after several months of coronavirus-related shutdowns, to fold the bricks-and-mortar, while continuing to run a shoe repair service online as he prepared for an eventual move to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s understandable, really: the absence of personnel using their customary white-collar offices has devastated both the demand for formal and business casual clothing (Banana Republic has been clobbered), as well as their attendant services. Dry cleaners like the one below (from another location amidst the vast Northern Virginia suburbs) have been hit hard. They primarily serve a clientele that needs its silk, wool, rayon, or other textiles cleaned—all textiles common to business casual attire.
Most shoe repair services also target the business casual demographic, since dress shoes are far more likely to warrant repair than a pair of Nike or Vans or Adidas or Saucony. But if white-collar workers are staying home, meeting their work obligations from laptops while lounging in their bathrobes and slippers, they’re obviously not adding much wear-and-tear to their shoes. Sam Torrey Shoe Service, in business since 1945, could no longer justify a bricks-and-mortar presence, even though the proprietors also offered repairs to belts, purses, and briefcases. The focus was in leather goods, a standard material in business casual attire. But leather belts and briefcases also don’t get much use during a lockdown.
Perhaps more important is a key detail revealed through the ARLNow interview with the business owner. His name is Jojo Tchalekian. Tchalekian. That’s an unmistakable Armenian name! (A disproportionate number of Armenian names end in -ian or -yan, almost like an Armenian suffix.) His family purchased the business from Sam Torrey back in 1985. And so the Armenian tricolor on the trim of the storefront was an unmistakable hat tip to his heritage. Since I harbor an almost instinctive empathy for small business owners, I hope Mr. Tchalekian can keep his long-standing enterprise going strong through the online service, which will obviously make him far less wedded to a certain place. And though there’s not a lot of white collar industry in the Outer Banks, hopefully in due time Mr. Tchalekian be able to fly a big red, blue, and orange flag from his home at Kitty Hawk. And people can wear business casual for their beachfront weddings.
8 thoughts on “Bye-bye business casual: if the shoe no longer fits, move the business online & fly that flag elsewhere.”
I liked the personalization of this post—the owner’s heritage, his future move. But I am wondering how he is conducting his shoe repair business. Does he work from his home? Does he have a drop off locale for the shoes? How does he get new customers?
Good question–and I can only guess the answer. I would imagine it is, for the time being, a work-from-home operation. The “Sam Torrey” name is well-known and established enough that Mr. Tchalekian probably has many loyal customers. And, given that he’s planning on ultimately moving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I’d imagine he isn’t too worries about making many new ones. Where he’s moving, there’s not a lot of demand for dress shoes or business casual apparel even in the best of times…he’s probably moving there as part of retirement. Just a hunch!
I was sure, starting to read the post, that the building would have formerly housed a dry cleaner. Auto-oriented, limited parking, busy corner. It’s why so many 50s-60s service stations were converted to cleaners in the 70s and 80s.
That’s probably a fair guess. I’m going to speculate here, but I can’t help but wonder if the emergence of environmental laws in the 1970s–and the first real classifications of brownfields–coincided with the emergency of national automotive repair chains in what had previously been exclusively a mom-and-pop operation. Or, for that matter, if vertically integrated dealerships were a rarity before then, where as now most licensed dealers for common brands (Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen) have somewhat pricey but reputable service stations and repair shops nestled within the retail. And, keeping all this in mind, the closure of locally owned auto repair and service shops prompted a use that could easily replace the prior owner without requiring expensive extra permitting to mediate a brownfield site. Enter the dry cleaning service! And didn’t dry cleaning only begin mid-century and slowly start to take off after beginning as a sort of boutique industry?
Sexism warning: this post mostly applies to men’s professional fashion.
Neighborhood-scale and convenient drycleaning really boomed when the Boomer generation all entered the workforce in the Reagan years. Men all wore dress pants, dress shirts, coats and ties to work in those days…even where I worked in an office associated with a factory on the Near East Side of Indianapolis. Women also wore business suits.
That was when the first wave of Underground Storage Tank rules were promulgated, and a lot of mom and pop gas stations converted to either service-only, c-store, or other neighborhood serving uses. Enter the gas-station and strip-mall drycleaner with cleaning machines on-site. (The industry was formerly dominated by large “central plant” operators who had small storefronts for pick up and drop off only.)
The “drycleaner on every corner” era lasted from the early 80s through the 90s, when toward the end of the decade “Casual Friday” entered the lexicon. But in a lot of places, that just meant “ditch the coat and tie” and guys were still wearing dress pants with shirts open at the collar. 9/11 was the big watershed moment and began the long decline of the industry as professionals started wearing khakis/chinos with golf shirts to the office. Then, jeans and sneakers or deck shoes.
This trajectory is why I left that business 15 years ago. It’s hard to make a business plan work with constant year over year sales declines.
Substitute *Professional, sales, and office men* in the third sentence.
Thanks for that capsule sartorial rundown, Chris. I guess I recall seeing vintage ads for dry cleaning from the 50s and 60s, which led me to believe it was common practice back then as well. But quick research has taught me that Milto, one of the “institutions” in dry cleaning in Indy, has only operated since 1970. So I guess everything prior to that was using the “central plant” configuration that you referenced.
Even during the TV sitcom “The Office” (the US version), most of the mail cast members wear at least ties and sometimes sport coats to work, and that show only ended its run in 2013. In terms of clothes, however, it already feels like a period piece.
Funny thing is, Milto and other big operators spent the decade from the late 90s to the Great Recession building new central plants and home/office route services.
The decentralized “cleaner on every corner” industry had a pretty short shelf life; I started out that way and later centralized too, though a much smaller operator.