BERLIN – In 1949, the help wanted sign outside Berlin’s shoe store caught the eye of Jesse Turner. The teenager was just out of high school and looking for a job. He wasted no time in approaching the shop owner.
“I came in and he said ‘what can you do’ and I said ‘what do you want me to do?” Turner recalls.
The proprietor hired the 17-year-old to shine shoes in the shop on Main Street. More than 60 years later, you’ll still find him there — at least for another two weeks.
On March 1, the popular Turner, now the owner of the Berlin Shore Box, will officially retire. His well-worn Main Street shop will be turned into a nail salon.
“I was going to retire in December of this year anyway,” said Turner, 86. “But they sold the building so I got an early retirement.”
His fellow downtown merchants say they’re sorry to see the affable cobbler go.
“He’s going to be sorely missed,” said Debbie Frene of Victorian Charm.
Turner has owned the Berlin Shoe Box since 1988. After his early years shining shoes in the shop—which was double its current size in those days—he began handling sales and gradually learned the array of skills needed to repair shoes.
“I’d do whatever needed fixing,” he said.
Customers would bring in shoes that were unglued, unstitched, needed new soles, heels or zippers. In the back room of the shop Turner would use the 100-year-old stitching and shaping machines to make the needed repairs. At the request of patrons he also made repairs to leather bags, replaced jacket zippers and even salvaged damaged baseball gloves.
While he acknowledges that times have changed and there’s not as much demand for shoe repair as there was 50 years ago, Turner says he’s still got plenty of work. High heels still break and worn soles still need to be replaced.
“We have a lot of doctors and lawyers in this area that buy $700, $800 shoes,” he said. “They wear out too.”
Turner’s ability to customize a shoe’s fit has also kept him busy.
“I’ve worked with a few doctors doing orthopedic work,” he said.
Perhaps his most notable job, however, was working on a pair of Johnny Cash’s boots. While he can’t recall the exact year, Turner says Cash was in the area to do a concert in Ocean City when he stopped in Berlin.
The country singer said his boots were hurting his feet and Turner offered to stretch them out. Rather than sit and wait while Turner worked, Cash went on up the street to Rayne’s Reef.
“He walked out of here barefoot,” Turner said with a laugh.
Turner saw a steady stream of visitors to his shop Monday as news that the Berlin Shoe Box was closing made its way through town. Several brought shoes in need of repairs while Police Chief Arnold Downing stopped in to let Turner know town leaders would be recognizing him later this month.
At Monday night’s meeting of the town council, Mayor Gee Williams shared the news of Turner’s pending retirement.
“He’s truly beloved,” Williams said. “He does everything he can for people. He’s been a great ambassador for our town.”
He said Turner was a past president of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and had volunteered his time at numerous town events. Many will remember him as the sponsor of the winningest team in Berlin’s bathtub racing history.
“I don’t think that record will ever be broken,” Williams said.
According to Frene, Turner has been a devoted supporter of Berlin as long as he’s been in the Shoe Box. She said he was always willing to support any and every town initiative that was brought to him, whether it was something that would benefit his business or not.
Another Main Street merchant, Terri Sexton of the Treasure Chest, agreed.
“He’s a great guy,” she said. “We’re going to miss him a lot.”
As decades have passed, Turner has watched the town transform around the Shoe Box.
“It’s really changed,” he said. “We used to have grocery stores in town. Now we’ve got antique stores. I guess I’m an antique too.”
Though he’s observed its various slumps and periods of economic prosperity, they’ve meant little to his shop, as the shoe trade has stayed relatively steady. Nevertheless Turner appreciates Berlin’s current success.
“The town stays full of people all the time,” he said.
He says in his decades on Main Street he’s enjoyed watching the town grow and interacting with its residents. His brief response when asked what he’s liked most about his job won’t surprise those who know him.
“Meeting people,” he said.
While March 1 will mark his official retirement, Turner doesn’t plan to get too far away from his shoe repair
machines. They’ll be in his garage, ready to be used as needed.
“I’ll still do it when I feel like it,” he said. “I’m not a rocking chair person.”
Turner will be recognized by the Berlin Town Council at its Feb. 27 meeting. He will be celebrated by the Berlin Main Street and Berlin Arts and Entertainment programs on March 2 at the town’s welcome center.