There is a kind of steadfast certainty about the little shop.
For anyone who has ever lived in Kennedy, Bortolotto’s Shoe Shop is simply a fact. No memory of Main Street would be complete without it. Decades of change have been reflected in its windows. Certainly, Bortoloto’s Shoe Shop was not impervious to these changes. Yet throughout the decades since its foundation was laid, it has been both an anchor, and a possibility.
Angelo Bortolotto left his home in the Italian village of Zoppe, and came to Kennedy Saskatchewan in 1921. His wife Teresa would join him two years later.
As grandson Roy Bortolotto explains, “My Grandpa originally came to Canada along with several other Italian families from the same village that he was from, to work for the French counts who were building St. Hubert’s (north of Kennedy). So, the first language that my grandfather learned when he came to Canada was French.
Although the other Italian families left this area after the building project at St. Hubert’s was done, my grandparents chose to stay.
Grandpa did begin operating a leather repair shop in Kennedy in 1933 (taking over from George Dodd’s father who ran the business beside his son’s store).
But Grandpa’s main occupation was as a builder. Carpentry work was what he preferred to do. And he built very strong, solid buildings. You can see that in the construction of two of the buildings he built, the United Church in Kennedy, and the Shoe Shop itself.
In 1971, there was a fire that started in a café right beside the shop. That fire burned down every building on the block, except our shoe shop. The stucco was so thick that it saved the wood underneath it. There wasn’t even any serious damage (although you could see where the heat had melted some of the gyproc and blistered the paint on the north wall).
That really showed just how solid a building my grandfather had built.”
The Bortolotto’s eldest son Armando had remained with family in Italy when his parents first came to Canada.
However, in 1937 Angelo and Teresa finally had the means to send for their son.
At the age of 16, Armando journeyed to Canada from Italy by himself, first to New York on the Italian Ocean Liner ‘Rex’ and then on to Kennedy via train from Buffalo and Toronto.
Once he arrived in Kennedy, Armando set about the business of learning a new language, adjusting to his new homeland, and getting to know his siblings (who had been born in Canada).
Roy notes that it was also during this time that Armando began learning the trade that he would build his own business on.
“My father first began working with Grandpa in the leather repair shop after school. Then in 1941, he began working in the shop full-time.
In 1946 Grandpa built the shop on the corner of Main Street and Assiniboia Avenue. The shop was originally designed with living quarters in the back. All of the other children wanted to leave Kennedy and move to Regina. So, my grandfather built each of them a house in the city. But Dad wanted to stay in Kennedy. When my grandparents also moved to Regina in 1950, Bortolotto’s Shoe Shop became my father’s business.”
Roy says that in the years which followed, Armando worked hard to build his business.
“In 1963 a major renovation was done to turn the entire building into retail and repair space. Dad needed the room. The Finishing Machine alone took up much of what had been the living quarters.
Along with shoe repair, Dad did a number of different things.
He was well known for his leather-working abilities. People from throughout the area, including other communities like Kipling and Carlyle would bring shoes and boots, as well as saddles and tack, and even swather canvasses for him to repair.
He also did a lot of work with various fabrics, since his sewing machine could handle almost anything.
In the seventies, dad began selling jeans, western clothing, boots and shoes, even watches in the shop. The shop became a very busy place at rodeo time!
As well, he started doing other things, like skate sharpening.
Later, he managed to get the contract to make ‘bit bags’ for the potash mine.
That proved to be very lucrative, although it was a lot of work for him.”
Although he was devoted to his family, Roy says that Armando focused much of his attention on the shop.
“Mom (Viola Hewitt) came to visit relatives in the High View District in July of 1952 around the time of the Kennedy Sports Day when she and dad met. They were married in August of 1953. They went on to have three children, myself, my sister Linda, and my brother Glen.
Dad was a wonderful father. But there was never any doubt that the shop was the focus of everything. When our house was built (just down the street on Assiniboia) he insisted on having a window put into the west wall of the house. And he made sure that the Caragana hedge was always cut low. That way, he would always be able to see the shop.”
Roy points out that although his father provided a variety of goods and services at his shop, it was often the opportunity to spend time visiting with Armando himself, that drew his friends and neighbors through his front door.
“Dad was always busy. But he was never too busy to spend time with the people that came into the shop. He was happy to have someone sit and talk while he fixed something for them. And if a friend stopped by just to visit for a while, that was fine with him too.”
Despite the challenges that he faced in later life, Armando’s dedication to his work, and his customers, did not diminish.
“By the late 1990’s, dad had already begun to find that some of his work was becoming too much for him. He had entertained an offer to buy the business. But that offer didn’t end up amounting to anything.
After mom passed away in 2003, dad’s health began to suffer as well. He was struggling with cancer. But he continued to work. In fact, just before he went into the hospital for the last time, he’d stared on a set of aprons for the potash mine. When he went into the hospital, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to finish them. So, he asked me to finish that work for him, which I did.
He passed away soon after that, on Feb. 4, 2005. He was 83.”
Through his dedication, Roy says that his father achieved something that many small businesses today would be hard-pressed to duplicate.
“My father was in business for 65 years.
Bortolotto’s Shoe Shop was the longest running single owner business in Kennedy.
You don’t often see that kind of longevity in many businesses today.
Part of the reason for that was that he was in the right place, at the right time.
He provided a service that people in the area needed. And he was well-known for doing good work. So, people would come a long way to bring something to him.
But more important was the attitude that he had towards people, and towards the community. He didn’t just provide good customer service. Everything he did had that ‘personal touch’.
My father enjoyed people. He always had time for people. And when he did work for you, he made sure that it was done right. That was his philosophy. And it made his business just as solid and strong as the building that housed it.”
There is a kind of steadfast certainty about the little shop.