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The storefront of Teddy Shoes, set on a bustling stretch of Mass. Ave in Cambridge’s Central Square, is packed with shoes, from casual sneakers to women’s ballet slippers. Inside the shop, owner Steven Adelson is surrounded by walls lined floor to ceiling with ballroom heels, tap shoes, and dance clothes.
For 44 years, Adelson has embraced the job of helping customers find the perfect fit with the right pair of shoes. The store was opened in 1957 by his father, and Adelson, 66, joined the family business right after college, taking over its operation in 1978.
At the time, Teddy Shoes was selling only ballet and tap shoes. But in 1993, the business changed when two stores in the area shut down, leaving Adelson with the option to take over the factory lines. It was then that he began supplying his store with dancewear brands such as Capezio and Bloch, attracting many more customers.
By the early 2000s, Adelson said he was doing orders to those brands for upwards of $30,000.
The shop became a destination for dancers to try on and buy dance shoes.
“People would come from all over to buy products from us,” Adelson said.
In a way, Teddy Shoes remains a hub for dancers. It is one of the only stores that sells dance shoes in the Boston area today. Many dance studios in the surrounding area, including Boston Ballet, are supplied by Adelson.
“We get a lot of students now, which is very good,” Adelson said.
When an Emerson College student, studying at the dance studio next door to Teddy Shoes, walked into the shop for the first time, Adelson made multiple trips between the back room and shop floor to find the right fit for her pointe shoes.
As she decided on her purchase, he asked the dancer about her studio and her studies.
The key to the longevity of his store is his philosophy on customer service, he said.
“If you treat people well, they’ll want to come back, and this is what my father always taught me … At the end of the day, people can buy anywhere they want,” Adelson said. “But if they have a good time and they have a good experience and they feel wanted and welcomed, chances are, you’re going to have them come back … That’s the name of the game in my opinion.”
In-person customer retention is important to a dance store like Teddy Shoes. Dance shoes, unlike normal footwear, have a much more peculiar fit, which makes it much harder to estimate the sizing online. Adelson said dancers usually have different preferences for the fit of their shoes as well, making in-person shopping the best option.
The coronavirus pandemic presented a huge challenge to Adelson’s model, as studios closed down and dancers were not able to try on shoes in-person.
Operations were hit hard by the pandemic. With Teddy Shoes no longer able to accept walk-in customers during the spring of 2020, Adelson was forced to modify his business by providing free local delivery, curbside pickup, and opening the store by-appointment.
But he was still unable to keep up sales, which went down 90% during the initial stages of the pandemic, even after pivoting his store’s strategy.
The shop has slowly revived with a few customers every day since then, Adelson said, as he jumped up from his seat to tend to a customer at the door expressing interest in a pair of shoes in the window display.
The business received an influx of customers in September as students returned to school in-person for the first time since the pandemic hit and dance studios began opening for classes again. He was even able to re-hire some of his part-time employees in September to help out in the store.
But once October hit, business quieted down.
Adelson and his youngest son set up a GoFundMe page in March last year, where people could donate to the store and help keep the business open through the turbulent times of COVID-19. The goal was $62,000 — in honor of the 62 years of business.
So far, they’ve raised almost $23,000.
“We have a really good relationship with the community,” Adelson said. “I believe that all those people who donated, they donated with the idea that [I’ve] got to stick around and [I’ve] got to keep working.”
Adelson also applied and was awarded a grant from the Small Business Enhancement program run by the City of Cambridge. With that, he and his son were able to produce social media advertisements and print brochures and postcards to promote the store. It also allowed them to replace the floor rug in the shop. But they did not have enough funding left to update the sign above the Mass. Ave. storefront, which Adelson has wanted to replace for a while.
Even with over 40 years under his belt, Adelson says the pandemic was “new territory” for him. But he is grateful for the support he has received, for the donations to the GoFundMe and the partial funding from the city.
Both aided the store and helped keep the doors open, he said.
With more people returning to “normal” every day and dance studios resuming instruction in-person, Adelson said the worst has passed for now. He hopes that more and more customers will be able to visit his store to get fitted.
His goal going forward is to get the store’s name out to dance schools in the community so they are aware of his business. He is optimistic that business will increase exponentially in the coming years as the world recovers from the pandemic.
“I’m hopeful that I will continue on an upward trend,” Adelson said. “I don’t want to close down, I don’t want to stop. I just want to continue to serve the customers and keep doing a good job and making sure everybody’s satisfied.”
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