‘Don't step on his blue suede shoes'

He may have heard a lot of cobbles in his time but that's hardly surprising for someone who has spent the last half century working in a shoe shop!

It almost 50 years to the day since renowned local business man Bernard Houston first set his foot inside a Derry shoe shop to begin his first day at work.

And nothing gives Derry's most famous shoe man more pleasure these days than enjoying his retirement and watching his son Paul and daughter Jennifer continue the shoe tradition in the family by opening their own shops.

Earlier in September on the 50th anniversary since Bernard started working in the shoe business, his sons Paul and Terence and daughter-in-law Lorraine opened the new ‘Houston International Footwear' store on the Strand Road. It is located at the prestigious new riverside apartments. His daughter Jennifer also runs her own shoe business in County Tipperary.

Although Bernard has lived in Derry for many years, he is a native of Strabane, the second son of the Houston family from Barrack Street.

“I came to Derry to become a boarder in St. Columb's College in 1941,” said Bernard.
“Not many young men come to the school from Strabane but I was lucky enough to win the scholarship and become a boarder.

“I enjoyed life at the school, although there were good times and bad. We had great craic in the dorms as young boys. I still see many of my school mates round the streets of the town today and we recall the good times.

“The hardest part for me was being away from my family for so long. To me that felt odd.
“So when I finished my time in Derry I returned to Strabane and secured my first job in “O'Doherty's shoe shop.

“To this day I will never forget that first smell of fresh leather that I got when I walked on the shop door. That smell has stayed with me for a long time. I remember that when I used to go on holiday I would miss the smell of leather and long to return to the shop.

“But they were different times. In those days people invested in good shoes that would last then a long time. During the war they had to pay for the shoes using their clothing coupons so they chose well.

“During my time in O'Doherty's in the early 40s I remember the hiring fairs that would often come into to town. These were very popular and generated great business for the shoe shop. Farmers and labourers would call in looking for a new pair of boots or shoes and we would oblige.

“We rigged a huge rope outside the shop from which we would hand the boots so the workers could see what was on offer”

In 1952 Bernard returned to the Maiden City after getting a job at local shop Pollocks on Strand Road.
“Pollocks was a lot different from previous shops I had worked for.” said Bernard. “There were a lot of children's shoes sold there and we did a lot more fitting.

“The fashions were also getting trendier and new ranges of women's shoes started appearing such as Panda, Lotus and Clarkes. Unlike today though there were very few with six inch heels, most woman took the sensible approach and bought court shoes.”

After Pollocks was bought over in 1972, Bernard decided it was time to start his own business, Bernard Houston's, a name which has become synonymous with the shoe business in Derry.
“It amazing that although the business has changed so much so many things are still the same,” said Bernard.

“Fashions keep repeating themselves. I don't believe that Doc Martens, Hush Puppies or shoes with pointed toes will ever go out of style. There are also amazing designs on the market too.
“I was amazed last year when my niece from Los Angeles visited me with her two children and I saw what was on their feet.

“Their trainers had a wheel attachment at he side which allowed them to wheel themselves down the street as if they were on roller skates”

Bernard has many happy memories of his regular customers who would often pop into him to have a chat or buy a new pair of shoes.

“I had a very sociable job,” he said. “And it has been wonderful seeing so many old and new faces call into the new shop by the Quay.

“I have memories of them. I remember the factory girls who would literally be queuing up outside the shop after I had taken a trip to the shoe factory in Omagh. They were dying to know what I had brought back. Then there were the school children who called in with their parents to get a new pair of shoes for the new term. That was always one of our busiest times of the year.

“I also remember the specially ordered shoes we had to get for the man with the size 21 feet and the woman who wanted a nice pair of shoes in a man's size 12.

“There was always a great rush at Christmas time too when people would stock up with their waterproofs and new snow boots.

“And I recall the great relationships that I had with the other retailers in the town.
“We were a great team, especially those of us who were there through the troubles and to endure bomb scares, explosions and attacks on regular basis.”

Unfortunately nine years ago Bernard suffered a stroke, and although he made a good recovery he was unable to continue working.

His son continued with the business for five further years until it closed.

However a new era of Houston shoes is set to start in the town with the opening of the new store.
However, for now Bernard is happily enjoying retirement with his wife Mavis at their home in Ardcaien.
“I don't know if I would still be working today if I hadn't had the stroke,” said Bernard.

“I probably would. But I believe I have the best of both worlds now. I can enjoy my retirement and sill call down to the new shop, smell the leather and talk to the old customers whenever I want to.”

Courtesy of the Erin Hutcheon, Derry People
October 2002