They once arrived by the busload, dozens of NBA players and other notable athletes, ducking their heads as they disembarked and entered the nondescript shoe shop on Mitchell Street in downtown Atlanta.
Friedman’s Shoes was the place where a man seven-feet tall with a size 22 foot could buy shoes the way everyone else does — right off the shelf.
For decades, it was a haven for men like Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson and many others, where the big shoes came with an equal measure of service and smiles.
“At one time we were the best of the best,” said Bruce Teilhaber, 77, who purchased the business from his father-in-law, Phillip Friedman, in 1972. “We still have a good business. It is not bad, it’s just that it will never be what it was. Nothing lasts forever.”
The family owned store, run by Teilhaber, his four sons and Uncle Murray, is the subject of a short documentary premiering Feb. 12 in ESPN’s 30 for 30, 30 short films celebrating 30 years of the network.
Shot in late 2014 by director Danny Lee, the film traces the store’s history from its heydey when revenues reached $6 million to the present day, when changing styles, internet shopping and general economic malaise have substantially shrunk profits.
Condensing so much history into a 10-minute film wasn’t easy, said Lee. It was less challenging to capture the oversized personality of Teilhaber and his family.
“They are the most endearing and lovable family you have ever met,” said Lee who shot the film over two days in Atlanta. “I was hugging Bruce non-stop by the end. And Brett is such a good son. There is a deep loyalty that is really missing from the fabric of America.”
Teilhaber’s son Brett, 50, has taken over general operations and despite having been presented with more lucrative opportunities over the years, he remained in the family business with the goal of bringing it into the digital age.
Athletes have remained loyal to Friedman’s as well. Former NBA superstars, like Shaq and Dennis Scott, continue to shop at Friedman’s even as their shoe buying options have greatly expanded.
Back in the 1970s, when Teilhaber couldn’t find a shoe to fit a player from the Boston Celtics, he vowed to never let it happen again. That was the beginning of their big shoe business and over the next several decades, Friedman’s would corner the market.
Teilhaber began working with shoe manufacturers around the world to order stylish shoes in sizes up to 22. The only person he has ever had to knowingly turn away, was the late Andre the Giant, who wore a size 24.
Former NBA forward, Dennis Scott recounted how Teilhaber and his sons really got to know their customers. They would make a point of recapping plays when teams would visit the store after a big game. And as they got to know them off the court, they studied their style of dress and lifestyles. Scott said, one year, he spent almost $200,000 on shoes from Friedman’s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, NBA fashion was flashy and the guys were wealthy. They wanted $900 shoes in alligator and other exotic skins. Friedman’s met the demand with a “skins room,” which housed $3.5 million in inventory and did one and half times more business than the entire store.
Empty wooden shelves line the wall of that room now. Demand for the pricey shoes fell and banks weren’t as willing to hand out million dollar loans to buy inventory, Brett Teilhaber said.
In 1998, the NBA lockout, hit many of their best customers in the pocket. Then came the rise in e-commerce.
Styles were changing as well, as everyone, famous or not, shifted from dressing up to dressing down.
Regular folks who once made Friedman’s a frequent stop disappeared as the economic climate forced businesses in downtown Atlanta to close.
Everyone engaged in proverbial belt-tightening and it put the squeeze on expensive shoes.
Brett Teilhaber saw those changes coming and Friedman’s made some adjustments. When styles changed, they changed with them. They ordered Timberlands — the popular casual hiking boots — in ostrich and alligator. But as the retail industry contracted and mom and pop businesses shut down, many of those large vendors that remained became Friedman’s biggest competitors.
E-commerce was the future of the retail industry and Brett convinced his father to launch a website. When a young guy named Nick Swinmurn wanted in on the shoe biz, they let him put his name on their website to get started.
Swinmurn would later ask Brett to come in on his business for 30 percent. Brett declined because their own online business was doing well, he said. He laughs when describing how a few months later he spotted a banner for Zappos, the company Swinmurn would end up selling to Amazon for almost $1 billion.
At one point Brett wanted to own every shoe category that could be searched online. Bruce balked and Brett backed down to prove a point. It was a costly decision, he admits. Today, they sell from the domain largefeet.com, which Brett purchased with his own money.
“The one thing we understand and the one thing we still own is the large niche business,” Brett Teilhaber said. “The only thing holding us back is being able to get our message across the internet and the world in the way search engines work.”
With changes in the retail industry, they needed a way to stay above water, Brett said.
So they sold all their inventory, paid back their bank loans and partnered with an Italian shoe maker — one of their vendors for 25 years. Friedman’s serves as the manufacturer’s warehouse and fulfillment center. Instead of $900 skins, Friedman’s was selling $350 Italian leather shoes with $1 million in inventory. “Then we had resources to buy shoes,” said Brett. “That saved our butts.”
Next they cut out the extras. Bruce Teilhaber will still run out and feed a meter if a customer forgets, but no more sending cars to pick up players at their hotels or filling UPS trucks full of shoes to send home with NBA rookies.
Everyone in the store works more hours and makes less money, said Brett, and while they haven’t made it back to the glory days, they do see promise for the future.
“I come here everyday because I still believe in this business and I still love it,” said Bruce Teilhaber. “I love it more when we are busy, but I believe in what we are doing. We have something to offer people and if they come in here, they see it.”
This season, they were able to send out their first catalog in three years, said Brett.
And when the documentary short was posted on ESPN.com, the phones started ringing, Bruce said.
A day later, a man walked in who had never been in the store before. “He saw the clip on ESPN in California. He lives in Hawaii but was visiting Atlanta and came in to look for shoes,” Bruce said.
Bruce was back in his element.
“I love when people can come in and I can look them in the eye and talk to them. I want to joke with them and make them love me. I can do that when I look them in the eye,” he said.
A 10 minute documentary can’t turn around the last 20 years, but it shows how strongly the Teilhabers are holding on to something they believe in.
“The power of family is important,” said the director, Lee. “That is the silver lining of the story. They may have missed out on beaucoup bucks, but they still have each other.”