The world has changed a lot in the past 100 years, but people have not stopped wearing shoes to protect their feet, feel comfortable and be fashionable.
And during that entire time, including the more recent era of self-service discount shoe retailers and online sites, the Coffin Shoe Company has remained in business, including the last 64 years in Bearden.
This month, the business is hitting the century mark, and third-generation family president Park Coffin said he still finds the work rewarding. “I enjoy meeting people,” he said in his easily approachable manner. “We’ve had good relationships with the customers and form friendships. We do a lot of repeat business.”
Coffin, whose daughter, Hanlon Coffin, also helps with the business along with 32-year employee John Humphrey, said the store opened on Gay Street in 1922 near where the Mast General Store is today. It was started by both his grandfather Hector Coffin, who had formerly worked at Spence Shoes downtown, and Grover Beeler.
Beeler left the partnership during the Great Depression, but the store soon became as familiar a part of downtown as someone’s favorite pair of loafers or flats. The store was also at another place on Gay Street before relocating to Clinch Avenue near the old Post Office/Custom House.
“We survived the Depression and World War II,” Park Coffin said proudly.
His father, Jim Coffin, who is 95, served during the Korean War and began helping with the family business before later taking it over. The elder Hector Coffin had died in 1967, working until the day before he died.
In 1958, the family opened a second store in the Bearden Shopping Center in the 5900 block of Kingston Pike, but on the west side of the White grocery store that is now occupied by Food City. In 1985, the business moved on the east side of the White store in the space formerly housing the Whiteway store.
The downtown store, meanwhile, closed in 1963 after a new Coffin store opened in Fountain City headed by Park Coffin’s uncle, Charles Coffin, an Annapolis graduate and Navy veteran.
The family in 1976 opened J.P. Coffin’s Clothing at Executive Park before later relocating to Franklin Square. In 2019, the clothing side of the business was combined with the shoe store, and clothes are now sold inside the shoe store.
To walk into the store in 2022 is almost like a trip back in time for those who remember the shoe stores of old. While the shoes are new and up to date, much of the store harkens back to the 1960s era and earlier with its vintage layout, neon sign, old-style foot stools, metal Brannock Devices for measuring foot sizes, and personal attention by the staff.
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Park Coffin said another aspect that makes his store unique is that they try to offer a wide variety of shoes – both in numbers totaling nearly 30,000 pairs and hard-to-find sizes and widths.
“If someone comes in and needs a size 15, or a narrow shoe or wide shoe, I’ve got them both,” he said. “That’s one of the things that makes us different.”
He has also tried to stay current with the times by putting the brands and shoes online for customers to view. His nicest men’s pair are some Allen Edmonds he sells for $360.
Among the customers they have had over the years are former mayors Victor Ashe, Randy Tyree and the elder John Duncan, and such noted people as actresses Mary Costa, Patricia Neal and Polly Bergen, and former WBIR “Heartland Series” host Bill Landry.
Former Tennessee football coach and athletics director Phillip Fulmer has also been in the store, and the late football coach Johnny Majors and the Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt were also customers. Coffin said when the statue of Summitt was being made, the artist used one of their shoes like one the coach wore as a model.
Hanlon Coffin, meanwhile, has used her father’s business model and personal example in her life and has enjoyed helping carry on the family tradition. “It’s the only thing I’ve done,” she said, adding that her father would pick her up from school when she was 11 and she would help dust and vacuum at the store. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve always been close to my dad and haven’t thought of doing anything else.”
Humphrey finds the work of waiting on customers enjoyable as well, adding, “You meet a lot of interesting people.”
Although the Coffins say they have heard a few jokes over the years from people who think they should be in the funeral home business with their name, their business is still alive and operating 100 years after starting. And that brings pleasure to Park Coffin.
“Lots of generations of people have come through the door,” he said. “They have been awfully good to us all these years. A lot of people have trusted us to do it right.”