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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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