A museum-going love for the fine arts, incisive curiosity, intellectual rigor—these are not traits immediately associated with successful shoe salesmanship. Robert Goldberg puts them to good use, however, as the current scion of a family that, for three generations, has brought the Upper West Side one of its favorite retail businesses, Harry’s Shoes.
On a recent day at the store, Goldberg, 49, a self-proclaimed “low-key guy,” wore glove-soft leather loafers with no socks and a calm expression, despite the surrounding bustle. With his relaxed demeanor and quiet intensity, there’s no doubt he inherited his father’s enthusiasm, though perhaps from a different angle.
“I’ve always had a fascination with people’s different perceptions historically, with learning many different points of view,” said Goldberg, who studied political science and art history at Vassar. “There’s also a curiosity about how people achieve creativity through their workmanship. I love the concepts of footwear patterns and last shapes and how they express fashion or function.” He adds that he takes an “almost academic” approach, always striving to increase his knowledge, which gets him excited and makes him better at his job.
“I’m impassioned about this business,” he said. “I’m just a very interested party, highly motivated when it comes to understanding the product itself and also consumer trends. I love what I do. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of pride, a lot of enjoyment.”
Goldberg’s grandfather Harry founded the business in the Bronx in 1931. His father Joseph opened a branch in Manhattan in 1975. A modest giant among footwear retailers, Joseph was a beloved community figure, kind mentor and common-sense philosopher who passed down much wisdom and shoe-selling savvy. He had a knack not only for connecting with customers but for recognizing trends and promoting sales.
“My father and I built this business together,” said his son. “He was already here, obviously, but we took it to the next level.”
Outgrowing their original store at 83rd and Broadway, they opened a kids’ branch half a block north then hatched plans to expand the main shop from 2,800 to 6,800 square feet and transform it into a sleek 21st-century emporium. Joseph stayed active in the business into his eighties, working there frequently until just a few weeks before his death in March. Sadly, he did not live to see its reopening in early September, though he could go to his grave knowing his legacy was secure.
“My father was my life coach,” said Goldberg. “That about sums it up. He was the best man at my wedding. He was a very close, dear friend, a wonderful man and a great consigliere. Anyone who knew him loved him. He was a really great guy, and he’s sorely missed.”
By the time Goldberg went to work for his father at 23, he had already amassed considerable experience. During high school and college summers, he sold shoes at Stadler Florsheim and Barney’s. After graduation, he enrolled in the management training program at Macy’s. “When you’re in a small business,” he said, “you do everything: You sell, you do stock work, you manage the floor. When I first came to work for my dad, I was already well-versed in all that. So it was a natural transition.”
It’s too soon to tell whether Harry’s great-grandchildren will carry on the legacy. Goldberg’s sister, Randi Goldberg Wasserman, helps run the business; they each have two children—all school age.
“Randi and I would both be thrilled if future generations take over,” he said. “But it would have to be their decision because it’s a business of passion. You do it because you want to, because you’re interested, you enjoy people, you enjoy the product, you want to study it, you want to learn.”
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